By Adam Boxer
The staffroom is the beating heart of the school. In schools where the staffroom has disappeared or been significantly changed, staff have felt a huge loss. Adam Boxer explains just why that is.
It’s a rainy Thursday morning, I’ve had a long week and I’m tired. Having started my day with duty on the quad, things didn’t’t get much rosier across the morning. Double Year 9 first thing was frustrating – they seemed to have forgotten everything from earlier in the week and a lot of them hadn’t done their homework. I then spent an hour “free”, marking assessments, followed by a mildly depressing and lethargic Year 11 lesson. The word Sisyphean comes to mind.
Feeling hungry and low, I take my lunch down to the microwave in the staffroom and quietly sit down and start scrolling my Twitter timeline. Brexit, Meghan Markle, football and some argument about exclusions. Heady stuff indeed. As the microwave pings, a couple of other staff members come into the room and join me on the low couches. They look how I feel, and I probably look how they feel. But somehow, within the space of a couple of minutes, we’re laughing. Within ten minutes the mood has turned 180°, and there are now a dozen of us swapping stories, gossiping and generally having a good time. It’s a strange kind of transformation, an unconscious shift from a place that feels very “down there” to a place that feels very “up here.”
That, of course, was then. Before the worst period for education in living memory. Covid took a lot from us and of course whilst it always could be worse and we should be grateful for what we have, I have felt the lack of the staffroom keenly. Here are the four things I’ve missed the most:
- The sheer levity and release
Teaching is a difficult job. A really difficult one. Part of what makes it so difficult is that we are fighting against human nature. We all naturally forget stuff. This is perfectly normal and close to universal. As teachers, it’s our job to fight that natural process of memory decay, and help our students remember stuff, be it subject knowledge, character virtues or whatever, over the long term.
In the messy reality of the classroom, this is further complicated by student disaffection, the inherent challenge of the content as well as the need to carefully construct student understanding on the foundations of previous knowledge.
Other events like challenging student behaviour or menial tasks can further add to feelings of demotivation and frustration. Though these feelings might not happen frequently per se, don’t believe anyone who says they love their job every minute of every day and experience nothing but sunshine, lollipops, unicorns and an unwavering love of all children everywhere, including Declan in Year 10.
It shouldn’t be controversial to point out that we all get down from time to time and we all need a bit of a break just to have a laugh and inject some happiness into what can be a difficult grind. I also personally find venting to be extremely cathartic, and though I have on occasion probably gone a squeeze too heavy on the invectives and expletives, I’m generally an adherent of the “better out than bottled up” school of thought.
- Practical wisdom
Some of the best tips I’ve received on behaviour management, dealing with particular kids and their parents and dare I say it even some other members of staff, have emerged from informal and ad hoc chats with colleagues in the staffroom. Even prosaic tidbits like which photocopier is the most reliable or the most effective way to get that tap in the toilet fixed can be a godsend.
- Getting to know other staff
Most teachers are fairly sociable beings and it can be weird working in a school where you don’t even recognise half the staff, let alone know what they teach or anything else about them. At the first school I taught at there were over 200 staff, and there were departmental common areas rather than a whole-school staff room. Even after two years there I was passing people in the corridor who were total strangers to me, and it left me feeling isolated and removed from others in the school community. It’s also awkward when you do end up meeting people face to face. You might have previously swapped emails and been aware of each other’s mutual existence, but then when you are actually in a room together and properly interacting for the first time it’s really strange saying “Hi, I’m Adam. We’ve worked together for two years. Pleased to meet you!”
In great schools, culture is everything. It’s a bit tricky to define what exactly “culture” means or what it looks like, but I think of it as “the shared set of values that underpin and justify the decisions we make as a school.” Schools make all sorts of decisions that might not make sense on the face of it, and communicating the reasons for those decisions can be tricky and sometimes forgotten. Often, new staff might be told about certain ideas and norms in induction or in their first INSETs, but there’s such an overload at those times that full transmission might not happen.
Informal chats in the staffroom can be a brilliant place for that culture to then be communicated, explored and even challenged in a safe and exploratory setting where there is no judgement being passed and no need to appear “in the know.” As a school, we can’t all row together if we don’t know the direction we’re heading in, and a school whose staff don’t have a shared understanding of their values, purpose and core drivers is a school which will fragment and struggle.
There are many reasons that I pray for a speedy end to this pandemic. In the grand scheme of things, perhaps the lack of a staff room is a trivial and bourgeoise concern. Maybe it is, but I hope when things do go back to normal we value its presence more, now that we have felt its absence.