The new teacher’s staffroom survival guide

Teaching is tough. At times it feels like you’re spinning plates. And, if you’re not careful, the result resembles a Greek wedding.

The trick to keeping all those plates spinning, I think, is to break down what can be a complex, multi-faceted job into each of its constituent parts, to deconstruct the whole and identify its components then reconstruct it again one piece at a time.

In practice, this might mean creating a checklist of short-term, manageable tasks. To help you get started, here are seven jobs to tick off the list as soon as you start a new teaching job…

1. Find your bearings

Try to learn the layout of the school – perhaps by studying a floor plan (there’s usually one in the school handbook or prospectus). If you get time during the day, do a walkabout around the school buildings to familiarise yourself with them.

Find out where the main facilities are, such as the toilets, the staffroom, the hall, the canteen, the school office, and the photocopying machine.

2. Learn your timetable

You will need to become familiar – and quickly – with the timing of the school day and with your timetable of lessons.

Timetables vary considerably from school to school, so find out and memorise what time the school day starts and finishes, how long lessons are, how long breaks are, whether there is a daily or weekly assembly and when this takes place.

3. Read the school handbook and policies

Ask for and read the school prospectus, staff handbook and main policies and procedures. It will prove especially useful to read about the school rules and the whole-school behaviour policy – you will need to adhere to it at all times. Another policy for your urgent attention is the one on safeguarding an d child protection.

4. Establish who’s who

Find out the names of key members of staff, especially the designated lead for child protection.

You should also identify a couple of senior managers in case you need to refer a pupil. Make a real effort to get to know the staff in the office as well as the caretaking staff and reprographics staff – they will be invaluable allies! Clerical and support people know a lot about the way that the school is run, and they can make your life much easier.

5. Get to know the staffroom…with caution

The staffroom should be a place of solace and succor but, a word of warning, approach it with caution initially and be careful where you sit!

Although staffrooms are becoming less territorial than they used to be, some teachers can still be precious about their favourite chairs. Before you take a seat, ask ‘is it ok to sit here?’ This might seem silly to you right now, but just wait until you’ve got a full-time teaching job and you find a trainee or ‘newbie’ in your own favourite seat in the staffroom next to all your closest colleagues to whom you need to offload.

For the first days, don’t be too vocal in the staffroom, be polite and friendly. Laugh at people’s jokes, join in with conversations. Slowly come out of your shell when you have felt the lay of the land and your new colleagues have got the measure of you, too!

Here are some more helpful hints to ensure you make friends and influence people in the staffroom…

Use your own mug.

If you commit the cardinal sin of taking someone else’s mug, be prepared for the backlash. It has been known for the entire morning break to be taken up with staff deep in conversation over missing cups, who has got them, where they were last placed, how could someone mistake their cup for someone else’s and so on.

Wash your cup up after you’ve used it.

If you do have to commit that cardinal sin of using someone’s else’s mug, at least have the decency of washing it up afterwards…don’t twist the knife in the heart of your victim by leaving their beloved possession abandoned and filthy in the sink. Leave it in a pristine condition and put it back in its rightful place.

Always make a fuss of anyone who’s been off sick, even if it is only for one day.

It is always good manners to find out how people are feeling when they have been off sick, but in the staffroom, this often takes on a dramatic level. Heartfelt enquiries about a person’s well-being accompanied by pale, concerned faces, and hugs are common types of behaviour.

Don’t take the last slice of cake.

Most schools have at least one day of the week when treats are kindly brought in for staff. Though you will look longingly at the final slice of mouth-wateringly delicious chocolate cake sitting temptingly on the plate, don’t make the fatal mistake of eating it. If you do, the whole of the staffroom will gang up to play the longest game of ‘Whodunnit?’ you’ve ever seen.

6. Impress in staff meetings

School staff meetings can be daunting so here are some tips for how to handle them…

There will be an agenda for most meetings and you should receive a copy in advance. Always try to read it beforehand. Remember that every item offers you a chance to learn something new, so draw on your expertise and research the background so you know what your colleagues are talking about.

Find out what kind of meeting you’re attending – is it a short staff briefing (key messages given by senior leaders) or a presentation (usually with slides), or is it a committee meeting in which you’ll work as part of a team?

Be an active listener, ask questions where appropriate and seek clarification on key points. In a committee meeting, don’t say too much. Occasionally, try to share your unique expertise – after all, NQTs and new teachers are supposed to be au fait with current theory having more recently been trained.

If refreshments are available volunteer to serve them to those present – it will give you a chance to speak to everyone.

You probably won’t agree with everything you hear in staff meetings, but stay calm and keep your counsel. Try not to react on the basis of right and wrong – keep asking yourself what you can learn from what is being said. Stay with the facts and keep the emotions under control.

Remember that – rightly or wrongly – staff meetings serve social as well as professional purposes. They can help with team building, but they can also give you – the newcomer – a very valuable insight into group dynamics. Be vigilant at all times and watch people’s body language. Remember that you are also trying to establish your identity within the team. Be modest, though suitably assertive when you need to be and always show that you are willing to learn and contribute. As such, be aware of your own body language – it can say more about you than any words you say. Smile and make plenty of eye contact.

7. Succeed at parents’ evenings

Manners cost nothing – as you greet parents, stand up, smile and shake hands. Thank them for coming. Ask them how the journey was. These simple things make relationships possible.

The parent may have been dragged from teacher to teacher to be told some pretty depressing things or, at the least, may be tired and bombarded with information. Be the surprise. Make some comment about how well their son or daughter is doing. Give them a reason to believe you can see all sides of the child.

But… you also have to be honest. Tell the parent that you need their help getting the situation back on track, and you want their son or daughter to do as well as they possibly can. Say what needs to be said but in such a way that suggests you’re not disgusted with the child but believe change is possible.

Here are a few other tips to help you adjust to life as a teacher:

• Become familiar with the key policies that will affect you, such as behaviour, homework, child protection, and health and safety. Review your practices to ensure you are meeting these policies.

• Make a note of the general work ethic in the school. Arrive on time and leave when the majority of staff do.

• Discuss your job description with your head of department and/or induction mentor. Make sure you know what’s expected of you.

• Be courteous and attentive to others, and always listen to advice from colleagues.

• Talk a little about yourself, but not too much, and don’t keep going on about what you did in your last school, during your teaching practice, or before you became a teacher.

• Do not rock the boat too soon. Even if you have an innovative idea, wait until you have established a credible reputation and some positive rapport with colleagues before proposing a change, no matter how small.

• Mind your meeting manners. There are unofficial guidelines that dictate decorum during meetings – read the runes as quickly as possible or ask someone to give you the inside track.

For more advice for new teachers, take a look at The New Teacher Survival Kit which is available in paperback and ebook…

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