My memories, as a student teacher in the early 1970s, were that school staffrooms were institutions from the dark ages. In one school, there were segregated staffrooms: the male version was a smoke-filled den of bridge-players supping coffee from stained mugs. Conversations were cynical and the one banned topic was anything educational. In another the very occasional arrival of the Rector, usually to issue some dire warning, was announced by the Depute Rector’s rapping of a gavel of a lectern, the words “Ladies and gentlemen, the Rector”, and silence.
A year later I had a very different experience. My charismatic first headteacher was an exciting, innovative school leader who had been in post for one year. He represented a new, enlightened brand of head. He had only one explicit rule for teachers: everyone was expected to come to the staffroom at morning break, every day.
His view was simple. A school only works well if the staff is a team. That required all staff to interact and communicate. Every morning, he had some item he wanted to pass to us: latest developments in the authority, problems (or indeed successes) with a student, positive things he had seen in the school. It was a bit top-down but it was exciting. We were part of a team which had a sense of our potential to improve our school and the lives of our young people.
One key to that happening was a large staffroom. Although recently built, our school was architecturally poor, but the staffroom was a great asset, the buzzing centre of a lively professional community. There was the bridge table, the union activists’ corner, the smokers’ corner, yoghurt corner (opposite the smokers and hosting the healthy eating, non-smokers), but for all the small groups the collective sense of the school was always apparent in that staffroom.
One of the great recent losses has been the staffroom as the epicentre of a school. My last school, built only 15 years after my first, had a much smaller staffroom in a distant corner of the complex, as far as was possible from the teaching areas and rarely used.
My predecessors as heads had insisted that all staff turn up at morning break – but only once a week, on a Friday. Anything more would have required a lengthy break time and would likely have excited justified moans from staff who needed their break and could do without a five-minute walk to, another from, the distant staffroom.
The school had of course been built with a sufficiency of roomy, comfortable departmental staff bases. Department bases however are not staffrooms. Indeed they can encourage an unhealthy departmental culture, where teachers’ primary identification is with their subject department rather than the school as a whole. They can reinforce that dangerous illusion, still too common, that secondary teachers’ subject skill is a more vital expertise than their pedagogic skill.
I am aware that some new schools do not even have a staffroom.
Educational architects should be issued with a clear instruction. Every school should have a staffroom large enough to hold the entire staff comfortably in a place easily reached from every teaching area. It should have comfortable chairs, coffee-making facilities and no computers. It should be a place where teachers and other staff speak, relax, debate, argue and come together.
Formal, whole-staff meetings are an essential part of any school but team-work and staff solidarity are created in the informal community of the staffroom.
Is it too cynical to suspect that breaking staff solidarity may be the very purpose of the abandonment of staffrooms?
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. He is now an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.