In with the old and new: we need the NQT and the experienced head of department in the same staffroom
It's not just the kettle that gets heated in the staffroom. A combination of pressure from pupils and pressure from management often results in outbursts directed at the wrong people.
"You've only been here five minutes, I've got 20 years' experience" was the inappropriate response levelled at a newly qualified teacher (NQT) in my previous school, after he misguidedly tried to advise a more established teacher about behaviour management. Later, in private, the NQT suggested that perhaps this teacher had simply had the same year 20 times. It was rude, though maybe accurate.
The teacher in question had actually been at the school for 25 years, and had been head of geography for 20 of them. He had not sought greater responsibilities and many excellent geography teachers had left to seek promotion elsewhere. And so what? If he's doing a good job, why should he have to do anything else? Stability is a good thing.
But in that leafy, suburban school there's perhaps a bit too much stability. The average teacher age is around 50 and the senior leadership team (SLT) has stayed the same for almost a decade. Are they really challenging themselves each year? How easy is it to have difficult conversations with people you consider family? I wonder if they might be (dare I say it?) coasting.
Low staff turnover is quite rightly seen as an indication of school success, but no staff turnover surely leads to stagnation. The status quo needs to be challenged regularly to reinforce the validity of existing practice or to replace it with new ideas.
I left that school to work in an inner-city academy, where you could mistake the staffroom for the sixth form common room. The place is mostly full of young, ambitious go-getters – the type that put "Teaching First", so to speak. The working hours are brutal, but if you can survive for two years, you will find yourself on a path to rapid promotion. Many of the middle managers are in their twenties and the SLT is mostly made up of people under 35.
I know that age is not an indicator of ability. But if people in positions of authority have only very limited experience of the needs and issues teachers face, how will they be equipped to handle them?
And then there's the damage that an all-youthful staff can do to work-life balance. When the majority of teachers have few external commitments and are happy to accept an 11-hour working day as the norm, what chance is there for their colleagues who have families that they'd also like to spend time with? It takes a rare and wise headteacher to instruct staff to work fewer hours, rather than exploit the enthusiasm of young teachers.
The result at my school is an atmosphere where the Monday conversation is about how you spent the entire weekend marking and planning. Some colleagues came into work every day of the half-term break.
If a staffroom has been emptied of the experienced teachers who know that a balance is needed to survive, who will the younger teachers learn this from? Not their 28-year-old boss, who thinks it is the norm. A status quo that expects unreasonable working hours is just as damaging as one that allows stagnation.
Agree to disagree
Each September, I'm always curious to see the faces in the staffroom. Firstly to see how different people look after a restful summer (it's remarkable), but also to see the new colleagues who are joining us. As with so many things, there needs to be a mix. In the same way that a homogenised student intake reinforces the divisions in wider community, a uniform demographic in the staffroom can also be damaging to the school community. We need mothers, fathers, experience, youth, energy, healthy cynicism, naivety and wisdom.
Despite the potential for conflict – because of it, even – we need the arrogant NQT and the experienced head of geography in the same staffroom. Teaching is about cooperation and support, but it is also about challenge. The orthodoxies that arise through years of experience need to be questioned, as does the belief that to be a good teacher, you have to sacrifice your life outside the school. And please feel free to disagree with me – that's the point.
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