What if staff rooms ceased to exist?
On the rare occasions I ever had cause to knock on the staff room door as the timid little chap I was back in the early 80s, a disgruntled teacher would throw it open, grumble about being disturbed, and demand what it was I had the temerity to be asking. It was a place of place mystery and unguessable wonder: what went on in there was essentially unknowable and dreadful. Even in the furtive fleeting snatches, I had through the thick, yellow clouds of billowing smoke, you could see the place was packed: a humming sanctuary where teachers went to plot and laugh and moan. A sacred space into which even the briefest glimpse seemed a wild transgression.
But what would happen if a student were to knock on the door of what, at my current school, is called the Staff Lounge? Well, they’d be waiting a bloody long time for someone to answer, that’s for sure. Most of the time it’s a barren wilderness of laminate flooring and leatherette armchairs. I’m not really sure why this is. We don’t have the excuse of many other schools where lunch breaks are impossibly short and punch-drunk teachers lurch from lesson to loo-break with nary a moment to slurp down a mouthful of tepid tea. No, we boast a generous 50 minutes – plenty of time to refuel and still have time for some for a spot of gossip. And it’s not like someone hasn’t tried to make it feel hospitable. It has a table football, a flat-screen, wall-mounted TV and a Nespresso machine which produces rather good coffee.
But there’s precious little to offer in terms of camaraderie or repartee. The only time it gets used is during break-time on Tuesdays when about 20 staff members get together under the umbrella of ‘Cake Tuesday’. It’s a good idea: everyone takes a turn at supplying the cakes but only 2 or 3 times a year; in return you get to fill your face with French fancies every week. But it hasn’t made much difference to the sorry neglect of the staff room.
This year saw, perhaps, the final nail in the staffroom coffin. Our esteemed Secretary of State announced that schools no longer had a legal obligation to provide a room solely “for use by the teachers, for the purpose of work and for social purposes”. You might have imagined anguished howls of protest and wild cat strikes at such earth-shattering news. But no; protest came there none.
Why is this? Over the last 13 years I’ve worked in a number of schools all of which have had very different stances to their staff rooms. For five happy years I worked at a school which yo-yoed between special measure and satisfactory. The students were often challenging and staff rallied together and supported each other in response. During my first year there I used to work through many break and lunches just trying to stay afloat but during my second year I learned that spending break time in the staffroom was an unmissable treat: it quickly became one of the highlights of my day.
Then, in my efforts to climb the greasy pole, I moved on to a school that had a very different relationship with its staffroom. We all trooped in twice a week for briefing, and that was it. Part of the reason was that each faculty had its own work base in which teachers would congregate. Also, the 30 minutes lunch was staggered, in three sittings, over an hour and a half. We didn’t have much time and we were never on lunch at the same time as anyone else. Although I got to know my own team very well, I still had no idea who some staff were or what they did after four years.
Some decidedly unscientific research conducted on Twitter last weekend revealed similar findings elsewhere. Although some teachers report a busy, vibrant staffroom, the majority experience is that the staff room has become the preserve of supply teachers and trainees.
Does it matter? Is Mr. Gove right to preside over the lingering death of the staffroom? Will generations of teachers roll their eyes intolerantly as us old-lags fondly reminisce about the halcyon days in the same way I do when some tedious old bore bangs on about getting high from the fumes of the bander printer?
For what it’s worth I think it does matter. As someone who’s visited a fair number of different schools, you can learn a lot from observing how the staffroom’s used. I love the bustle and hum of a busy staffroom; it speaks of unity and shared experiences; it allows teachers to unwind and regroup before heading once more unto the breach; and it seems to have a tangible (mostly positive) effect on morale.
As with so much else, it’s up to us.
Ultimately, we’ll get the schools we deserve and if we want them to contain a dedicated space for us to drink tea and make inappropriate jokes we need to make damn sure we’re in there, feet up, smoking our metaphorical pipes and staking our claim to a room of our own.