What kind of staffroom do you work in?
This article contains descriptions of staffrooms that are an amalgamation of anecdotes I have heard, stories I have read, experiences I have had, as well as a good dose of pure conjecture and humour. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The main part of our job takes place in the classroom, a place where we often enjoy isolated privacy with our students and a place our colleagues don't usually get a look into (unless you work in one of those schools that have glass walls and/or microphones in your classrooms).
If you do most of your lesson preparation from home, the staffroom becomes a place to keep your stationery, teaching tools, and books. Interaction with other members of staff is kept to a minimum, either due to time or space constraints, or simply because you don’t get along with them.
The Venting Hole
Each class you take could potentially present you with a new set of problems: the students are of varying abilities and mixed levels; there is a trouble-maker who changes the dynamics of the class; they are un-motivated; they talk too much; they don't talk when you tell them to…
So you go to the staffroom to have a rant and everyone listens sympathetically and take turns having a whinge about their classes. There is solidarity in such negativity.
The Union of the Hand-Wringing Libertarians
The struggle for equality, fairness and personal freedom is a liberating one, and one that members of the TEFL profession often represent, seeing that we have chosen to teach English to students from different countries and backgrounds for a meagre salary.
It’s one thing to frown upon racial jokes in the classroom, but some people have taken things to the extreme. Some of the things I have heard advocated include:
- Banning any form of competition because it makes those who don't win feel inadequate;
- Forbidding homework because it stresses out children unnecessarily;
- Swapping the singing of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ for ‘Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep’;
- Never referring to bin bags as ‘black bin bags’;
- Banning talk of Christmas because it might offend non-Christians.
It’s political correctness gone mad.
The Traditional Puritans’ Club
The teachers in this staffroom have been there for quite a while (and perhaps have not budged in terms of professional development either). They have been teaching for years and feel that there is nothing more they need to learn about teaching.
They pride themselves in being strict and in their insistence on grammatically perfect utterances from all their students. Young new teachers are regarded with suspicion, and so are these newfangled, wishy-washy methods of teaching. After all, these new teachers have noisy classes and teach students to use unorthodox words like ‘gonna’ and ‘wanna’.
And don’t get the Puritans started on the use of technology in the classroom. Tsk tsk.
Enter at your own risk.
The Support Group
Everyone seems super nice and they all speak in lilting soft tones and possess sets and sets of laminated cut-out cards for teaching, which they are more than happy to lend you. They are also super supportive and shower you with praises all the time. Your new outfit is gorgeous, your lesson plan is perfect, your teacher development session was the most useful one they have ever attended. Every decision you make is the right one, whether it is choosing to punish your rowdy student by making him run around the basketball court ten times, dying your hair pink, or deciding to quit your job.
It gets a little eerie, and you start wondering if they are telling the truth.
The Amateur Dramatics
There is a disproportionate number of ex-actors, musicians and entertainers in the TEFL industry. And the TEFL environment seems like the perfect one for us performers. There is an instant grateful audience waiting for us in our classrooms and like-minded drama queens in the staffroom.
Recounting the way we danced across the room to explain the meaning of the word ‘prance’ or challenging each other to somehow work the word ‘leprechaun’ into today’s lesson can be lots of fun, but we mustn’t forget that the real performers in the classroom should be our students, and as tempting as it may seem, the activities, tasks and games we bring into our lessons are not for our benefit, but for our students.
The Game Show
It’s all a competition for some: each interaction is a chance to gain a ‘one-up’ on their colleagues, each feedback form is another notch on one’s belt, and each bunch of flowers or gift they get on the last day of a course is a chance to show everyone else in the staffroom what a great teacher they are.
These teachers would never share their lesson materials or ideas, are extremely judgmental of other teachers, and often speak up only when they can display their extensive knowledge to everyone else. Don't expect them to share their failures with you, because they certainly don't want you thinking they have any.
Prolonged stays in such a staffroom can prove extremely tiring.
The Circle of Trust
Members of this staffroom can experience extreme feelings of loyalty and belonging to their school and their colleagues. They are proud of the organization they are in and the way they function. They share and care for each other and for what they do, and are happy to invest their personal time and energy into developing relationships with their fellow members of staff.
However, their strong feelings and sense of belonging to the group can sometimes mean that outsiders find it hard to penetrate this ‘circle of trust’. Newcomers to the team might find the atmosphere cliquey, and ‘insiders’ might pepper staffroom conversations with so much jargon and so many in-jokes that newcomers feel excluded, unwelcomed, and disheartened. New ways of doing things brought in by those with less understanding of the group culture might be faced with resistance, and even hostility.
The Mover and Shaker
The term ‘mover and shaker’ is usually used to describe people who initiate change and influence events, moving things forward and for the better.
A supportive staffroom can do the same.
- It encourages its members to bring in their own thoughts and ideas, no matter how ridiculous they might seem at the outset, and provides a platform for them to be bounced about, discussed, tested, and refined.
- It praises and compliments, but also challenges and questions so as to promote staff development.
- Its members are open and keen to share and to learn, not adverse to peers observing their classes, giving them feedback, or using their lesson ideas.
- It welcomes new members as they often bring with them fresh ways of doing and looking at things.
The Global Staffroom
The proliferation of mobile devices and networking sites like Twitter and Facebook has enabled educators around the world to connect via the internet, and in the process, shaping their own global staffroom where ideas are shared, debated, and discussed. One’s Personal Learning Network (PLN) can take on the roles of the ‘Support Group’, ‘Venting Hole’, advice giver, and even friend. Once in a while, some PLNs might act like a ‘Circle of Trust’, but more often than not, PLNs are open welcoming groups that may include teachers with different levels of experience, qualifications, and accomplishments in the industry.
Conferences like the coming IATEFL can be a great meeting place for the global staffroom. As such conferences tend to attract like-minded professionals who are keen on their professional development, it isn’t difficult to strike up conversations with complete strangers who see the merits in allowing mobile phones in the classrooms, are keen to discuss the validity and reliability of the IELTS exam, and do not find it nerdy debating the pros and cons of the Lexical Approach.
So if you are unhappy with your staffroom for whatever reason, don’t feel like you have to walk the teaching journey alone. Join a community of teachers online or attend an ELT conference, and tailor make your own global staffroom.
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.
She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com