If someone were to ask you what you most cherished about your current school, what would spring to mind?
It’s a question I asked my team when the year began, back in September. I also asked what they’d like to change and if there was anything they really wanted to scrap. But it’s the “cherish” answer that tells you most about a school, I think.
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When you read the question, I presume the first thing that popped into your head wasn’t anything to do with the academic outcomes or the structure of the leadership team. It probably wasn’t the salary either.
That’s not to say that we’d all carry on teaching regardless of the take-home pay, but it’s not normally the thing that makes people love their work – or hate it, for that matter.
In my experience, the thing that tops most people’s lists is their colleagues.
A highlight of people's working lives
I daresay that, for people truly unhappy in their work, colleagues are also high up on the list of reasons why they feel that way.
But, in my case, I’m fortunate to work in a school where, almost universally, a highlight of people’s working life is the team they work alongside.
Teaching is a very strange job in that respect: we spend our days surrounded by children, and yet classrooms can be solitary places. As much as you might come into the job because you love working with children, it’s often the relationships with our colleagues that make it a joy – or not.
It’s not the whole answer, but you can be sure that retention is a far greater challenge in schools where colleagues don’t see one another as something to cherish. But to be able to feel that way, you need to have time to see colleagues, to talk to one another and, hopefully, to laugh together and be a support when things go awry.
It’s why workload is such an important thing to get right. Not because the job needs to be easier: no one comes into teaching thinking that it’s going to be an easy ride. More because the job needs to include time for social interactions between adults.
Small-talk moments around the tea counter
The whole school day is structured around breaks that allow pupils to engage socially, and yet somehow in too many schools it’s hard for teachers to do the same.
If every day brings an extra duty, then the small-talk moments around the tea counter that are the lifeblood of communities are soon lost.
If your marking pile is an endless source of anxiety, then there’s not much chance that you’ll be chatting about family life in the staffroom at lunchtime.
If planning scrutinies and book looks dominate the school calendar, then the opportunity for the 3.30pm debrief soon becomes a thing of the past, and the job starts to feel wholly isolated and isolating.
A staffroom filled with laughter
By contrast, the school with a busy staffroom filled with laughter is also likely to be the sort of school where teachers feel valued.
It’s in that downtime that teachers find out about one another’s lives, their families, their interests – and their worries.
And, if they can share their worries and problems with cherished colleagues, they’re a whole lot less likely to be overwhelmed by them, or to be looking for a way out.
Reducing workload is not just about making teachers’ lives easier. It can make schools happier places that retain their great staff – and make others want to join you.
Perhaps more importantly, it gives us all something to cherish about our workplaces, and that seems like a pretty good thing to aim for.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at East Preston Junior School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979