Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Good Staffrooms and School Morale

Although this month marks the beginning of the third year of my retirement from the classroom, September has always seemed to me to be about both new beginnings and reflections on past experience. With that in mind, please indulge my thoughts on something that I believe is vital to teachers, a supportive staffroom.

For me, a supportive staffroom is almost synonymous with, but not necessarily identical to supportive and nourishing colleagues. In my last 17 years of teaching, I was truly blessed to work in a collegial environment that emerged in part no doubt by both the geography of my school and the physical arrangements within the staffroom. Our school was a large one, divided into what was known as the East and West Wings. Fortunate to be a member of a department in the West Wing, I was part of a cadre that nurtured, supported, debated and sometimes vehemently disagreed with each another. For me, the staffroom was a refuge, an oasis, and a nexus of fervent ideas.

Why is the staffroom here not merely a metaphor for collegiality? Part of the answer lies in the fact that in this staffroom, which, over lunch periods, was the meeting place of between 20 to 30 people, dominated by the English Department but including staff from science, co-op, drama and art, had only one long lunch table. This meant that anyone seated there had to be prepared to join in the discussions or simply adjourn to the sofa, recliner, or computer workstation. Few chose those options. The majority lingered and participated. More on those discussions later.

The other reason the staffroom is not intended as a metaphor or metonym (I’m sorry, once an English teacher, always an English teacher!) is the fact that there was no administrative presence in the West Wing. In the early 90’s, the then principal moved her office to the East Wing, the main part of the school, which, of course made eminent sense. Although we sometimes complained that student behavioural problems in our wing were exacerbated by the absence of an office for one of the two vice-principals, I think we ultimately benefitted from their absence for a number of reasons.

To explain those reasons, a contrast with the East Wing staffroom is necessary. That room, serving the majority of staff which at one time numbered close to 100, was merely a few steps from the central office and the school’s administration. Indeed, the principal and the vp’s used it as their eatery as well. This fact, coupled with the arrangement of tables, worked against the development of the kind of collegiality I am talking about here. There were a number of small circular tables in that room, capable of accommodating probably six at the maximum, and the tables were not especially close to one another, so that each group or clique was essentially self-contained. Granted, in one end of that staffroom there were a couple of couches, but in occasional visits there, few sat after completing their lunches. Most tended to simply return to their ‘workstations.’ As well, I can understand how the presence of administrators nearby might have dampened people’s enthusiasm for voicing and debating strong opinions.

I believe the above two factors strongly militated against the development of the kind of culture that we enjoyed in the West Wing. Our discussions, ranging from pedagogy to politics, religion to remediation, domesticity to divorce, administrative traits and shortcomings, etc. knew few bounds; coupled with the resultant camaraderie, this atmosphere represented, for me, what effective education is all about; through the nurturing of the professional soul and the cultivation of the spirit of inquiry and healthy skepticism, I like to think we helped each other to become better teachers.

Viewed in the later years by administration as some kind of repository of discontent, our staffroom, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, seemed to make the administration feel threatened; hence 2 out of the 3 administrators present when I retired seldom visited. We were seen as a problem, and often times the principal would make sure that young teachers did not have classes on that side of the school, so as to minimize the risk of ‘contamination’ with non-corporatist thinking.

And the latter is to me what much of education has become; where independence was once fostered or at least tolerated, compliance to every last detail of educational orthodoxy, whether locally or provincially generated, is demanded.

So while the West Wing still exists, and former colleagues retain independence there, I know the clock is ticking very loudly. I salute them, I commend them, and I mourn the inevitable passing of a noble tradition.

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