In loving memory of…the staffroom

23rd October 2015 at 00:00
Looking back, it seemed like an endless party – those halcyon days when teachers had time to gossip over a cup of tea and plan a few pranks on pupils. But now the secondary school staffroom has faded into oblivion. Stephen Petty looks back at the times he shared with his once glorious friend

W e are gathered here today to mark the sad departure of our beloved Staffroom. Oh, friends, if only we’d gone to visit her in such numbers in her lifetime.

Her passing brought an end to a long period of solitude and stuttering health, yet still we feel deep shock and sorrow today, among our inescapable feelings of guilt and hypocrisy.

We hear word that her sister, Primary Staffroom, is also ailing, but for Secondary Staffroom the journey is over. She has gone to a better place, mainly because we all found a better place.

Our younger colleagues may wonder why we mourn such a loss. That’s because they never knew the true Staffroom; they never met that sprightly, vibrant personality in her heyday. They came too late to experience that richly textured character, created and coloured, then twisted and turned, by the wit, wisdom and witterings of thousands of teachers over countless decades.

New colleagues knew Staffroom only in her rather depressing dotage, when she seemed a rather distant and lonely figure. They just saw the empty shell, the room we rarely visited in the later years. When we did call in, it was usually just a brief detour to use the photocopier or fill the department kettle.

I remember Staffroom in her finest days, when almost everyone wanted to be with her wherever possible. At the height of her popularity, Staffroom was a kind of budget-edition Great Gatsby. She was never quite as stylish as Gatsby and her parties were never quite as exotic (Tupperware rather than tuxedo, coleslaw rather than caviar), but Staffroom was where it all happened. With her we played out our fantasy of the teaching high life – and it felt genuinely exhilarating.

Anyone could drop in on that seemingly endless party. With Staffroom, we could switch off and relish the easy sociability, the joshing and flirting, the waspish wit. A few would be there for a pre-school coffee party. Things would really start to take off at lunchtime, when the second kettle came into play. And a small hardcore would still be going strong hours after school had finished.

Jokers in the pack We loved Staffroom’s mischievous side – the way this meeting of fertile minds led us into so many acts of supreme pointlessness. It was Staffroom, for instance, who gave us the idea of carrying out various stunts every Friday. On one such occasion, we all dressed, talked and gesticulated like our head of science for a day – at his own suggestion. On another, every class was left with the impression that, by some amazing coincidence, we were all nursing a minor injury.

It was juvenile nonsense, of course. I would like to think that it helped us through the more serious challenges in the day. But I doubt it, and we must remember that not everything we do needs a rational justification.

Staffroom also had a deeper and more compassionate side. She offered a warm welcome to those who just wanted to discuss classes, students or other aspects of their work, and to those who wanted a quiet corner where they could talk about a personal matter. She brought colleagues from different departments together, providing shoulders to cry on and enabling close and lasting friendships to develop. Some people reading this tribute – and, indeed, the person writing it – will be eternally grateful to Staffroom for helping them to get to know their future partner in life.

Perfect for whingers

Staffroom did have a darker side. There were times when she fell in with the wrong sort, when she was far too accommodating to a few recreational whingers. Staffroom always had a healthily subversive way about her, but this sometimes encouraged a couple of resolutely miserable staff to take her over completely. They would endlessly criticise everything and everybody. At her best, Staffroom was great for rallying the troops in defence or support of something worthy, but she sometimes made it easy for poisonous gossip and negativity to spread across school.

She was also just a little too accommodating to lazier members of staff. In my first school, I had a number of colleagues who abused Staffroom’s fabled hospitality, using all their non-contact periods to chat or attempt crosswords. They saw nothing wrong with this, given that another colleague used such time to moonlight as a professional builder.

Those days are long gone. Now, as we reflect on Staffroom today, some of us will feel guilt. In her last years, even those of us who were (supposedly) her oldest and closest friends paid her scant regard.

Staffroom turned into something of a recluse. We let her go and so she let herself go, too. The wall that used to hold 100 mugs gradually emptied as teachers unhooked and took themselves and their drinks away to their team rooms. Faded notices from the turn of the century clung to the walls even though the drawing pins were looted years ago. New notices were still put up, more in hope than in any real expectation of anyone reading them. Cupboards were found to contain stacks of national publications stretching back to Blunkett and beyond, like seams in a rock face, charting the rise and fall of many a forgotten fad or fancy.

The sink area received a little more attention, though even here the odd museum piece might be unearthed. A cleaner recently found, in one forgotten little drawer, an opened tin containing a volcanic-looking rock formed out of some predecessor’s predilection for Horlicks – dated circa 1992, according to scientists here.

The first casualty

So where did it all go wrong? Well, first, Pidge died. The sad fact is that Staffroom was never quite the same after the passing away of the love of her life, Pigeonholes – or “Pidge”, as we all knew him. The two were inseparable. When Pidge left for the great pigeonhole paradise in the sky (the arrival of internal email and voicemail simply sucked the lifeblood out of him), we all suspected that Staffroom would soon follow.

For let’s face it, colleagues, Pidge was the essential reason why we visited Staffroom in the first place. When we all began emailing, and stopped needing to visit Pidge, we got out of the habit of going to see Staffroom. The writing was on the wall for her. In fact, it was probably in an email.

A relic from times past

Friends, we should also remember that Staffroom was born at a different time, a now distant age when people used to speak freely of “lunch hours”, “free periods” and the like. Many staff today cannot even conceive of spending their time at school doing anything as unproductive as simply “chatting in the staffroom”. They never fully stop during their entire day, restricting their “time off” to the odd brief interlude of team-room chat amid the marking and planning. We cannot blame people for thinking in such a way.

This is the natural consequence of most teachers’ innate conscientiousness combined with a government policy that has shifted the responsibility for student performance almost entirely on to teachers and away from pupils. And then you have the emergence of Staffroom’s great rival and ultimate assassin, Department Team Room. Department Team Room offers much of the support and sociability once provided by Staffroom, while enabling staff to carry on working in the way just described. He humours our innate desire to huddle into subject tribes. And there’s still, undoubtedly, a lot of warmth, humour and camaraderie there, despite the constant niggling obligation to return to that lesson plan or that pile of books. Department Team Room is the younger model, more in touch with modern educational culture. Staffroom just could not compete.

Some fear that we are not only burying Staffroom today but also all sense of a whole-staff community.

In my experience, that collegiate spirit does live on, just in a different and less visible form. Teachers from across the school do still meet socially. It’s less regular than in the days of Staffroom, yes, but perhaps we now come together in deeper and more structured ways.

My school, for instance, holds staff “walking weekends”. Teachers hole up together in a range of huts and cabins in faraway hills, with a nearby pub offering an alternative in the event of bad (or even good) weather.

Much of this community spirit is held together, surprisingly, by the much-maligned email. For example, after a message was sent out to any interested parties, colleagues who are carers for their ailing parents now meet periodically to talk and enjoy a meal or a film.

Others take up the open invitation – again promoted and organised through staff email – to meet in town for a night out; many cross-department friendships are now made on such evenings. Others meet weekly for five-a-side football, a round of golf, a reading club, cake-eating, knitting and so on.

The internal email is our new Staffroom – our “e-Staffroom”, perhaps. It makes it easy to bring together like-minded members of staff, for gatherings of niche or general interest. From a professional point of view, email also gives us a much better opportunity than before to work together as a whole school – to share, receive and adapt other teachers’ and departments’ ideas and resources much more freely and substantially.

Her heart will go on

So, although we are bidding a sorry farewell today to Staffroom, the sense of community and sociability she facilitated can still live on, albeit in a different form. We no longer need the Staffroom of old – different kinds of “glue” are involved now.

I have a final wish, before we send her on her way, if you would permit me to take a little more of your time. A sense of community may live on without Staffroom, but something else really is in danger of going to the grave with her – that fading concept of the lunch break. We may be saying “rest in peace” to Staffroom, but I hope, for their sake, that thousands of beleaguered teachers can discover more “peace in rest”. It’s what Staffroom would have wanted, and probably her most important legacy.

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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