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Staffroom - good or bad for teacher wellbeing

Staffrooms: safe haven or hotbed of discontent?

13th November 2019

Think back to our own school days and to the times we may have been sent to the staffroom on an errand. “KNOCK AND WAIT” proclaimed the message on the door and after an interminable period the door opened enough to release an aroma of coffee and, when it was permitted, of tobacco smoke. The invitation to cross the threshold of the mysterious and otherworldly domain of our teachers never arose. It was their safe space and escape from our childhood demands.

Fast forward to the present and in some schools there is no longer a staff space. In researching for this piece, some respondents advised that they no longer had a staffroom as such; just a kitchen area with a fridge, kettle and microwave, no seating and little room to manoeuvre past a colleague. New builds and extension projects in some cases haven’t included a staffroom. Is this because of cost, maximisation of teaching space or storage, or are other factors at play, such as limiting interaction?

Tea breaks and lunch in the classroom does not, I would suggest, serve the wellbeing of our teachers. It risks leaving them isolated and away from meaningful social interaction with their colleagues. Talk is important for our mental health and the effective restriction of conversation to the weekly or fortnightly staff meeting, leaving dialogue potentially only about work-related matters, may mean that opportunities to get to know what makes our colleagues tick, other than teaching, are missed. If leaders believe wellbeing is served through a team approach, then a place for that team to engage would be useful.

Where staffrooms still exist they offer a haven from what happens in the classrooms, corridors and playground. Teachers and support staff will descend for refreshment and relaxation, hoping someone has left a packet of digestives to accompany their break or lunchtime refreshment.

Or do they?

Some responses to my questioning suggested that in some schools one group of staff would never visit the staffroom because ‘it is the realm of the others’ or that one particular group would dominate, vocally and physically, not even leaving a free place to sit.

Others have said that negativity in the staffroom has driven them away but a contrasting response suggested the negativity was fed back to senior leaders, with staff ‘dealt with’ as a result. A culture of “put up and shut up” is far from helpful when for many staff this room is a safe haven.

I hear tales too of social exclusion, some staff, including headteachers, even being asked not to come to the staffroom, or of the loud expression of opinions that upset or offend others, met with sharp or upsetting responses if challenged.

The domination of the space by a small group or clique is something that school leaders need to be aware of in the interests of equality and fairness, as well as of wellbeing.

Some teachers will say that they need a space to ‘sound off’ or to ‘let off steam’ at some point in the day. We all have frustrations, problems and gripes, but all have different ways of handling them. Some will self-regulate differently from others; it is the manner of the ‘sounding off’ which could be challenging. In the presence of more impressionable staff, a comment about a child, parent or colleague could affect or alter their perceptions. The ethos and culture of the school very much needs the narrative that issues and complaints should be brought to senior leaders and discussed in private and professionally, not subject to hyperbole and over-dramatisation in the company of others. If such outbursts are a frequent and targeted occurrence, is this not within the realms of staff bullying? A drip-feed of negativity can potentially become one that creates a toxic atmosphere in a staffroom.

Staffrooms are also increasingly becoming more digitally aware, by which I don’t mean teachers updating their status during lunchtimes. The staff WhatsApp group, like any other social media outlet, has benefits as well as pitfalls. Alerts about snow closures, forgotten swaps of break duties or expressions of thanks are examples of how the channel can be used effectively. However, by its nature it is also instantaneous and the posting of something that one colleague may take offence at is difficult to avoid as ‘there is no such thing as delete’ as we warn our students frequently. As leaders we also need to be aware of other groupings which may be set up. Some of course will be in all innocence; departmental, year group colleagues or friendship groups. Others though might be cliquey in nature; that group that gossip in the staffroom could be doing the same online ‘after hours’ offering a different range of issues to deal with.

Attention needs to be paid to the ethos and atmosphere of the staffroom and to the social interactions within it. Ideally it will be a welcoming escape from the rigours of the school day. However but it can be a hotbed of dissent and dissatisfaction and a sounding board for the malcontent. Equally it can be a space dominated by a vocal minority, a clique or the person who always wants to be heard.

Who doesn’t come to your staffroom?

Have you ever asked why?

Are our staffrooms genuinely social areas or do we have some staff who never venture beyond their pigeonhole?

Andrew Cowley is Deputy Headteacher at Orchard Primary School in Sidcup, co-founder and blogger for Healthy Toolkit and the author of “The Wellbeing Toolkit: Sustaining, supporting and enabling school staff” published by Bloomsbury Education. Andrew tweets as @andrew_cowley23 and as @HealthyToolkit#

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