This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The staff room door: a portal to another dimension of coffee, profoundly bad breath, and conversations about absolutely nothing but the curriculum. Or so we all thought when we were students ambling around outside that door, occasionally catching a glimpse of the regulation gray-brown carpet and air of utter sadness inside.
But what is it actually like for teachers on the front line of state education? Are they indeed humans, or the automatons we all thought most of them were? And what do they talk about on their lunch break, when they're not tasked with keeping pupils from bullying each other or running riot in the halls?
As a teacher, I have the answers to your questions. Below are some of the conversations we have in the staff room, relayed in no particular order.
Kids who are complete pieces of shit
I said no particular order, but this one is unquestionably at the top of every self-respecting teacher's agenda. If you were consistently in trouble at school and felt like staff were conspiring against you—no matter how much they said you weren't worth their attention—chances are they absolutely were.
I know there'll be a few liberal-lefties out there thinking, But no child is a "piece of shit"—they must have a tough home life, or something? Too much pent-up creative energy?"
Problem is: that kind of saccharine humanity and lack of cynicism has no place in the staff room. So shut up and go back to watching some show about it.
How the head of the school is a clueless piece of shit
It's important to note that not all teacherly frustration is directed at children. The likelihood is that the single most reviled figure in any school is the head/principal/executive chairman/whatever bullshit name the privatized academy system has settled on.
Why? Because he's the one taking home a six-figure salary while telling the staff that the school can no longer afford teaching assistants. Because he's the one who hires a consultancy firm to see what's wrong with behavior, while never leaving his office to tackle anything. Because he's the one who decided not to expel that student who called you a cunt and brought a knife into school because it'll look bad for the school.
In short, most teachers who get into senior leadership positions aren't there because they're great teachers—they're there because they're careerist scumbags. They are the kind of people who genuinely believe children are best quantified as data. As such, they're not just an obvious focal point for contempt—they're a necessary one.
How state education is (sometimes literally) falling apart
From misdirected management, we work our way naturally to pure negligence. While it's no secret that the Tories have taken an ax to school funding, I don't think it's understood by anyone who isn't on the ground quite how terrible the situation is. In the space of three years, I've seen a huge decline in standards, not through negligence of teachers or even necessarily of management, but through the sheer inability to provide for children with the funds available.
Essentially, all schools are funded per pupil, which means they are chocking themselves to the unsustainable rafters. Classrooms designed to hold 24 students routinely hold 34—at worst, I've seen 40. Add to this the absurdity of budgets maxing out at the basics of pens and photocopying, and it leaves children going without access to essential sets of text or fighting over the one glue stick between ten of them.
This is coming from someone who teaches in a previously well-funded Academy in London. Fuck if I know what's happening out in the wilds of Sunderland or Hull. The NHS may be grabbing the headlines for a state service that's falling apart, but ours isn't far behind, and many of us are terrified about what the future holds.
Stress, stress, STRESS!
With all of the above comes a great deal of stress. As a teacher, your day is composed of several hour-long performances—performances you're expecting your audience to disrupt, heckle, or disengage from. As such, a touch of stage fright is only natural. One only has to spend a five-minute spell in the staff bathrooms—a staccato mess of rips, groans, and gasps—to understand the physical impact this is having on teachers.
While shitters whirr and struggle (but ultimately cope with) nervously expelled effluvia, our brains and faces remain stained with the mental torment of it all. It is not uncommon to see a newly qualified teacher staring into the middle distance like a broken soldier out of Full Metal Jacket. Nor is it rare to see heads of faculty weeping into a freshly printed sheet of data, the realization that their job is now on the line starkly wrought across their face.
The staff room is a place of recuperation and consolation from the chaos of it all. When a fellow teacher sobs brokenly that they don't know how they're going to do it, your responsibility is to get them back in the game. Equally, if your colleague's behavior more closely matches the famous meltdown in Network—exclaiming that they're "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!"—your responsibility is to cover their next lesson, and give them time for their irate ramblings so they can simmer down into a gentle, defeated puddle shame.
As a rule of thumb, most teachers will experience at least one such meltdown a year. And they're the lucky ones.
How fucked up we got over the weekend
With great stress comes the need for great relief, and what’s the greatest access to relief we've got? Alcohol and drugs, of course. When I started teaching, I was initially tentative about sharing my weekend tales, until I told a story from Glastonbury to an elder statesman of my department—who I subsequently learned was an Ibiza casualty. I omitted any mention of the magic mushrooms I’d taken, but none of the bizarre behavior that accompanied them. He looked on either side of us to check that no one was listening and cracked a wistful, almost longing, smile and said, "I fucking love drugs."
It may shock you to discover this, but the reason Mr. Johns might have been particularly irritable that Monday morning was because of the 16-hour coke binge he'd only finished ten hours earlier. Or that the reason your art teacher acts like he's spaced out all the time is because he is spaced out all the time. While not all teachers use illicit drugs, almost all teachers I know are either functioning alcoholics or drug takers, and they love talking about it—and for good reason: There's something perversely pleasurable in regaling your colleagues with your messiest tales while knowing you're considered to be an upstanding, "real" human being with a proper, decent job.
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This article originally appeared on VICE UK.