School Culture – What does the staff room tell us?

By Marg Armstrong in News
Teachers and administrators demonstrate all too well a capacity to either enrich or diminish one another’s lives and thereby enrich or diminish their schools” Roland Barth

As a consultant, I spend a lot of time in school staff rooms. They are fascinating places and tell us a lot about the culture of the school. There continues to be much discussion in staffrooms about workplace bullying within the school context and the amount of bullying that can take place both amongst staff and between staff and administration.  It is the staff and administrators of schools that model behaviours for our young people and the way they interact with one another can tell us a lot about the behaviours they expect or allow of young people within their care.

Roland Barth (2006) has highlighted the vital relationships teachers have with one another and how important they are to the culture of the school. He stresses that the ‘nature of relationships among the adults within a school has a greater influence on the character and quality of that school and on student accomplishment than anything else’ (p8) .

Barth mentions 4 types of staff relationships:

Parallel – teachers who prefer to work alone, who rarely contribute to team discussions and are often resistant to change.

Adversarial – staff who either blatantly, or in more subtle ways, intimidate or exclude other staff from teams, discussions, and decision making.

Congenial – Staff who develop personal and friendly relationships with their peers

Collegiate – Staff who work together, plan together and provide feedback about practice

School staffrooms where relationships are congenial and collegiate communicate to students that staff relationships are valued. Such relationships are often indicative of the real value placed on relationships within the school; and how the school ‘walks the talk ‘of its values.

 So let’s look at school staffrooms and what they tell us:

How welcoming a school is can allow a visitor and parents to feel a sense of belonging. A school staff room is usually the place a visitor is welcomed by the school and introduced to the staff. Some visitors can find themselves sitting in a staff room and ignored, as no-one has taken the time to introduce the visitor to staff.

The way a staffroom in arranged and how it is used often sends a clear message about its culture. Is furniture arranged to allow staff to mingle and share, or do staff sit in clusters of known groups only? Are staff encouraged to develop their relationships with one another, share or ask advice of their peers, or simply share their weekend experiences in a safe space?

The culture of the school is often communicated by how often staff get together in their staffroom. Do they only enter only for specific events such as staff meetings or morning briefings, or is that space utilised more regularly for morning tea or lunch and for other, more congenial purposes?

Are the conversations overheard within the staffroom positive, or is the staff room a place to vent about students/administration/other staff?  Are staff encouraged to share their concerns with supportive peers and seek advice when needed, or are these conversations discouraged and staff left to work things out alone, apprehensive that if they share a negative classroom experience they are showing their weaknesses and lack of teaching expertise?

Information displayed on the walls of the staff room can also be an indication of what the school values and gives importance. Are professional learning courses and teacher union information clear and prominent, or buried in the corner? How often it is referred to and updated as a visual reminder and important information for all staff?

A staff room is inevitably a place for staff to drop in for a tea/coffee and a bite to eat. Are tea/coffee facilities available to all staff, or do staff need to bring their own from home? Do they also need to bring their own mug and special likes in relation to tea/coffee or are these supplied readily by a school administration keen to place emphasis on a happy and collegiate staff?

Many staff rooms have rostered duties of stacking the dishwasher, clearing tables etc. This is also often cause for concern and frustration by many teachers. How clean and tidy a staffroom is can also indicate not only its use but also its value to the staff. Are papers left where they are found, dirty dishes left in the sink, coffee cups left on tables? What does this say about the value placed on the space generally?

A school leader’s role is multi-faceted and no one would say that they aren’t incredibly busy. So how often does a school leader enter their staff room?  Are they only there for morning briefings and staff meetings, or do they drop in to develop relationships and touch base with their staff and thus show acknowledge the importance of the work of their staff?

If bullying is a relationship issue that requires a relationship solution, as NCAB holds, then schools should value the relationships developed amongst staff as much as they value the work they do in classrooms. When relationships between staff, between staff and students and between the school and parents are valued and developed, then bullying is less likely.

Now, all these items don’t necessarily say or mean anything about the school or its leadership, but often they do. How do we want our staff to feel and experience their space and the interactions that occur within it? Are they places where they feel comfortable enough to voice concerns about their teaching practice and not be judged for finding it difficult to cope? Are they places where they can celebrate their successes in a safe environment and be valued for their contribution?  Are they places where they can sit and be welcome as part of the teaching team and know the relationships they develop with colleagues is valued? What does your staff room say about your school?

Barth, R.S. (2006) Improving Relationships within the Schoolhouse, Educational Leadership, v63 n6 p8-13

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