The way that you 'do' it

How to get through the staff social without personal or professional disaster

My friend Webster and his wife, both of them teachers, had a pre-nuptial agreement with just a single clause. Neither spouse would take the other to a staff "do". It worked: they have been peacefully married for more than 25 years.

When I was a naive young teacher in my first year I witnessed a marriage break-up at a staff party. I was quite shocked, but nobody seemed that much bothered. The buxom classroom assistant was voracious and the other women were just relieved that she hadn't bothered with their man.

"You've certainly no need to worry," one of them whispered to my wife.

The staff "do" is fraught with difficulty and no little peril. Where to go for the meal can start fierce arguments. Sensible headteachers have the staff party as the first item to be discussed at the first staff meeting of a new term. Nobody feels like arguing on the first day of term. Teachers, by the very nature of the job, talk shop and talking shop is a monster turn-off to a spouse or partner who is not involved in the profession. Teachers have so few opportunities to strike up a conversation with a colleague, break time is just a few minutes once you have fought your way up to the staffroom and lunchtime is hardly ever a relaxing session. Conversations are at once intense and fleeting.

The staff party is a good excuse for a chat, catching up with the school gossip and actually getting to know people who work at the other end of the building. If the term has been particularly arduous then tiredness can soon take its toll.

I went along to my wife's staff Christmas party, some time ago, and by half past ten all 25 teachers had sunk into a zombie state. They were asleep by eleven, slumped across the tables like characters in a fairy tale, and I just played cards with a man from the building society until the restaurant manager insisted on waking everybody up. We hadn't bothered to wake them because they looked so peaceful.

If Janet had been there she would have kept them awake, Janet was a Scot who loved to get everyone on their feet dancing - the Gay Gordons. If a disc jockey asked for requests someone, usually Janet, would pipe up "The Gay Gordons!". The disc jockey would usually stammer that he hadn't got it, but that didn't matter.

"Janet has!" they would all chorus, with frightening enthusiasm.

Janet was the school's deputy head and she dispensed favours and patronage like the Virgin Queen. One chap didn't ever bother dancing and he was always losing his free periods when colleagues were absent . . .

Cliques form in staffrooms, as they do in any other workplace. They are sharply focused in schools because of the pressure of time. Gossip gets more extreme, discord is emphasised and quarrels take that much longer to be resolved. They can make staff parties a touch difficult. At one school where I taught the head had her own end-of-term staff party and the deputy head had his, often on the same night. If you were invited to both it was best, as I did, to cultivate a mysterious private life, ripe with possibilities for prior engagements. One Christmas I really was being interviewed live on local radio, but nobody at the school would believe me. You have to go, it is expected, but don't go to every single one, and don't take your partner to every single one. Can you occasionally go with a friend on the staff? Two partners will be relieved if you do!

Try cultivating conversation away from school topics. Your efforts will obviously be appreciated by non-teachers but perhaps more importantly by teacher colleagues who appreciate someone with a refreshing outlook. Having a life outside teaching makes you a more interesting person.

The trick is to ensure that your presence is noticed and your presence is enjoyed. Oh and do learn the Gay Gordons, you never know when it might come in handy.

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