In defence of the staffroom

Written by: Kate Sarginson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When it comes to staff wellbeing, the staffroom plays a crucial role. Kate Sarginson offers some ideas to give staff morale and wellbeing a boost

Conversation, camaraderie, complaints and caffeine – the staples of school staffrooms everywhere. A pupil-free zone, with its unspoken seating plan, kettle etiquette and possessive mug disorders.

A haven for break and lunch time, where temporarily we are not just “sir” or “miss” – we can refer to one another with our actual first names and perhaps remember briefly that we are people. The staffroom provides a physical space to be together and the mental space to be yourself.

A few years ago, the Education (School Premises) Regulations (1999) were subject to a consultation calling into question the need to provide a common shared area for staff. This discussion is now having an impact on planning decisions as some new schools do not include a designated staffroom.

The teaching profession is facing a recruitment and retention crisis and is increasingly viewed as a career choice that is hazardous to health. This is something the Department for Education has to strategically address alongside its glossy and feel-good, pupil high-fiving, television adverts for initial teacher training. Every year, thousands of teachers have been debilitated by stress and are unable to come to work despite wanting to, and many others are walking away from the profession altogether.

This is not just about staffrooms – there is strong justification for action to be taken across the board of teacher wellbeing. But I would argue that the staffroom plays a crucial role at the heart of our wellbeing strategies. How this looks in practice will vary from school to school, taking into account where the specific fundamental issues are and where gains can be made.

Matters which cause real pressure such as managing workload, pupil behaviour and line management have to be addressed. Low morale can’t be glossed over. Sticking a fruit bowl in the staffroom and thinking job done probably isn’t going to cut it. Lasting improvements need to be made, where teacher wellbeing is embedded into the culture of a school. The first step is focusing on the challenges to morale, wellbeing and mental health in your school.

Create a staff wellbeing survey that can be completed anonymously. Evaluate the findings, feedback to the staff and agree on action points. Repeat to track results and address where required. Consider the sample as well – should teacher responses be kept separate from other staff?

Furthermore, have a governor with staff wellbeing as part of their key responsibilities and start a staff wellbeing working party. And ask staff regularly for their thoughts on key changes such as school policy and ideas of approaches.

School leaders should communicate their appreciation of staff. It can be all too easy to allow the fast pace of school to get in the way and to miss the chance to simply say thank you. Staff should have the opportunities to have their voices heard and their views taken into account.

Leaders shouldn’t fear that the tail might wag the dog – really listening to what teachers are saying can influence the vision and make it work in reality if staff know they have influenced and contributed to the direction the school is going.

Investing financially in the staffroom in terms of décor and furniture could be perceived as being a waste of resources, especially when budgets are so tight. Yet the staffroom could be an under-utilised and under-rated resource. An environment where time has been taken to create a space for staff can speak volumes about how an organisation views their worth. Pupils will ultimately benefit from investment into staff that raises morale.

Simple changes to the physical environment can have an impact. Furniture can be arranged to encourage relationships, interaction and team-work. A creative approach to the presentation of the staffroom can recognise that the community built within can make for a stronger team and a healthier, happier, workforce, which is in turn, more effective for pupils:

  • As a minimum starting point provide tea, coffee, milk, biscuits (and, yes, a fruit bowl) without charge.
  • Provide non-educational information, e.g. things to do in the local area.
  • Have a staff wellbeing board and create displays that need a response and are changed regularly (for example, film recommendations, new year’s resolutions, strangest Christmas present ever received etc).
  • Run quizzes, World Cup sweepstakes, guessing the staff from childhood photos – all with the chance to win small prizes.
  • Provide treats for the end of term and ahead of every holiday.
  • Provide refreshments for twilight training evenings.
  • Create a staff shout out board.
  • Invite staff to be part of specific events such as nationwide charity days.

Teaching is acting. Great skill is required on a daily basis to present as a consistent, unwavering source of knowledge, authority and energy to pupils who don’t need to know what’s really going on in our professional and personal lives. Maintaining this is necessary, but exhausting and the staffroom is where this mask can be removed.

Schools are more and more aware of the need to have pastoral support in place for staff on site and are taking steps such as training individuals to become Mental Health First Aiders. This is part of the wider increase in viewing mental health on a par with physical health in society and the workplace. Staff are trained to recognise signs when their colleagues aren’t coping and be able to signpost them to sources of support.

  • Set up a system where every staff member has a designated person, of their choice, they know they can go to when needed.
  • Start a staff fund which invites staff to donate a set amount to contribute to cards and gifts for special occasions. Have a list of staff birthdays and mark the “big” ones.
  • Have senior leadership thank you postcards hand-written to staff for specific reasons.
  • Support staff who have caring responsibilities for children and other relatives.
  • Display information directing people to sources of help, such as phone lines, websites, and tips for health and wellbeing.
  • Research providers of accredited mental health first aid training.

Granted, the problems of wellbeing run much deeper than there being a staffroom or not, but perhaps schools need to be re-educated about how they communicate value to their staff.
Staff don’t go to the staffroom to shirk, they go there to connect. As part of our wider staff wellbeing work, this community needs to be built and maintained intentionally. Removing the playground from children would be unheard of as we understand the importance of down time during each day for pupils’ development. Investing equally in staff wellbeing communicates that teachers are not there to serve the school only – they are recognised as people too.

  • Kate Sarginson is an assistant headteacher in Northumberland, where one of her responsibilities is for pupil and staff wellbeing. She is a qualified SENCO.

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