I have just been reading the excellent article from @nicola_slawson in the Guardian about the demise of the staff room as a communal space. Her premise is that this could be down to three main factors:
- A lack of space in many schools.
- The pace of work and the need to be near the computer has moved staff into faculty or departmental areas.
- A more Machiavellian suggestion that senior leaders do not like staff talking and perhaps organising outside controlled parameters.
This is another huge sea-change that has overcome the profession within a generation. For those of us old enough to remember the staffroom was a place of mystery and fascination where Mr or Miss would disappear and then vampire-like resurrect for the next lesson usually smelling of coffee or cigarettes. Forbidding signs, “Do not enter this corridor unless an emergency” or “Only knock between X and Y” were common up and down the country.
Yet beyond the almost pantomime nature of the mythology was the real heartbeat of the school. Until I became a teacher back in 90’s I did not realise the true importance of this professional space and time to communicate and unwind and problem share and solve. The classic stereotypes were there, Mr Smith’s chair, sit there at your peril. Mrs Robert’s special mug, pristine and shining and not for sharing. However, beneath this almost quintessentially British exterior, there was something special and almost amorphic about the dynamics of the staffroom. It was here that ideas were shared, problem classes discussed, and solutions debated. Also, the friendly rivalry that existed between departments helped to build up camaraderie and the occasional sports team being raised across gender and age to take on local rival schools were priceless times for establishing a team spirit and real feeling of togetherness. When you threw in Headteachers and Deputies who were strong enough to see this as a positive and not as a threat you had a bond and camaraderie that radiated out to the students, parents and the local community.
Somewhere, along the line, this has not been lost forever, but in the case of many schools is a serious cause of declining morale and of the key factors often cited in staff wellbeing issues and feeling of stress and isolation. I have experienced this myself in being in a small department where you were very much on your own and as an experienced teacher expected just to get on with it. This was not the fault of anyone, but I remember feeling isolated and out of touch with most of my colleagues who also had no time to do anything but teach, mark, write reports and answer e-mails. My love for teaching was seriously dented not because of the school but because of the growing separation between staff at all levels.
Some of these issues are just part of the advance of technology and society in general. We are all constantly checking our phones, email and intranets have made communication with colleagues and parents easier and so much quicker. The pace of life is more frenetic, and this is the case in all jobs and professions not just teaching. However, the teaching profession is a unique and special beast. The delicate and often fragile trusts built up with students is a magical one when working well. The rhythm of the school year with the build-up to exams, trips, end of term events are difficult to understand when you are not in the job yourself. Standards and expectations continue to rise but the most precious commodity of all, time to make them work, has been squeezed so tightly that the smallest mistake or “failure” to deliver perfection can become a serious issue and stress for staff.
These may be well-trodden themes, but I am convinced that Every Voice Counts can go a long way to alleviating if not solving the above issues. Firstly, leadership allowing staff to positively engage in the strategy of the school and garnish support or even at times constructive criticism would be in a certain way a return to the old-fashioned staffroom, robust and transparent debate between professionals. Secondly, the staff social wall “hands up” is an effective way of allowing your whole staff to know what has been going on and who has been involved. It was always demoralising to come back from a trip or fixture and find that it was not recognised or even worse taken for granted or forgotten. Just the act of being given a euphemistic “pat on the back” by colleagues is powerful. Thirdly, the wellbeing and blog section will allow staff to find a range of links, blogs, and articles in one place which can become a valuable and organic reference section for teachers to find material written for them by teachers.
The staffroom of the past might be never possible to recreate but with Every Voice Counts a tool is there which just might enable a return of some of that nostalgic togetherness using very much 21st-century technology. If this is the case, we might yet see the direction of travel in the media and society at large move from this perception of a profession constantly in turmoil and chaos to one that regains its rightful place as the keystone of our communities and the trusted guardians of the next generation.