Schools can feel like prison sometimes

I had my first primary placement day today. My Schools Direct teacher training requires me to spend 5 days in a primary school (not necessarily consecutive days – I shall be doing a day a week all the way until half term) so that I can find out what happens on the other side of the fence. I’ve chosen a school very close to where I live, so for one day a week I have no commute to face, which is something of a relief.

Of course, I’m supposed to reflect on teaching matters and write them up in my learning journal – which I will in due course.  But what struck me most today was not a particularly pedagogical point. I was struck by two things, both of them very pertinent to teacher wellbeing – at least this teacher’s wellbeing.

There’s actually a teacher staff room!

This might sound like a very obvious thing but my experience in secondary schools so far is that the teacher staff room is a thing of the past. Instead, each department has its own mini-staff room, more like a cubicle, where the faculty tribe congregates. These rooms tend to be work rooms, not places for relaxing, and they are often cramped and untidy. Ours has a set of dirty dishes on the side which nobody seems to have claimed. Bags are strewn all over the place and piles of school books are crammed in whatever space can be found, awaiting marking. That’s where I get to spend most of my day in school, when I’m not teaching.

The primary school I visited today has an actual staff room which is quite clearly a place for leisure. It’s a large room with light streaming in from the equally large windows, plenty of comfortable chairs, a well stocked kitchen and a roomy communal table. Not a computer in sight. This is quite obviously a room you can go to and relax, eat your lunch, read a book or have a bit of a gossip with a colleague. Contrast this with my own beloved staff room, a long narrow room lined with computers, internal windows so you have no privacy from the students in the adjacent space, and where in fact students are constantly knocking on the door wanting to speak to this or that teacher.

I’ll let you work out for yourself which of these differing set ups works best for teacher wellbeing.

The second thing that I noticed today was this. I had a whole hour for lunch – not the half hour I’m used to getting. As the school is near to a high street with shops, I actually left the premises and went to have something to eat outside. It felt so liberating, being able to step out of school half way through the day. It’s not really possible to do this at schools where the  campus is far from any thoroughfare of shops and cafes (which has been the case for my last two schools). You enter, early in the morning, and you don’t emerge until home time. After a while, you start to feel institutionalised. Now, it’s not that I would feel the need to march out of the school gates every single day, but oh how liberating it is to be able to get away for a little while when you need to.

And reflecting on today’s experience, I realised that the thing that I’m regretting the most in my new career is my loss of freedom. I’ve had office jobs before, where you clock in, sit at your desk and have meetings, but what you do in between is often your own business. Want to step out for some lunch at 12 if you’re feeling particularly peckish? Why not. Maybe you’ve got a deadline and you need to work at your desk all the way until mid-afternoon, but then you stop and go out for a breather. But once you’re inside the school system, you’re bound by the school schedule. Your time is very rarely your own. Even when you’re ‘off-duty’, you’re always actually ‘on-duty’, rushing to help if you hear a commotion outside the corridor or to berate a student for not having their shirt tucked in. And just when you think you can settle down and get on with that lesson planning, a knock on the door reminds you that you have to go somewhere for a meeting.

What I’m describing is normal for the seasoned teacher, but for me, it’s an adjustment. In case you think I’m a bit of a shirker, please don’t. I think – and my previous colleagues can vouch for this – that I’m rather conscientious. I hardly ever pull a sickie. I make sure I’m where I’m supposed to be and fulfil my duties as best I can. I’m sorry for having a bit of a moan, but I do feel rather hemmed in sometimes in school, maybe a touch claustrophobic. It feels like I enter a prison for the day, only to be released at the allocated time. But, well, I’ll cope. It’s just, that staff room was very very nice.


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