The Secrets of the Staff Room

This is what teachers talk about when you can't hear.

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24 May 2018, 9:52am

Photo: Nick Sinclair / Alamy Stock Photo

The staff room door: a portal to another dimension, of Kenco Rich Roast, 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 grey-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 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 watch Educating Yorkshire about it.

A teacher just kicking back in the staff room, reading some text books to relax. Photo: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

How the Head of School Is a Clueless Piece of Shit

It's important to note that not all teacherly frustration is directed at children. Likelihood is that the single most reviled figure in any academy chain is the Head / Principal / Executive Chairman / whatever bullshit marketese the privatised academy system has settled on.

Why? Because he's the one taking home a six-figure salary while telling the staff body the school can no longer afford teaching assistants; because he's the one who hires a consultancy firm to see what's wrong with behaviour, 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 on the Ofsted report.

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; 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 axe 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 massive 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 board pens and photocopying, and it leaves children going without access to essential set texts or squabbling 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 knows 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.

Photo: Phil Rees / Alamy Stock Photo

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 toilets – 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. Neither is it rare to see Heads of Faculties weeping into a freshly printed sheet of data, the realisation 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, yours is the responsibility to get them back in the game. Equally, if your colleague's behaviour more closely matches the famous meltdown in Network – exclaiming that they're "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!" – yours is the responsibility to cover their next lesson; to give them time for their irate ramblings to simmer down into a gentle defeated 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 We Got at 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 joined 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 – omitting any mention of the magic mushrooms I’d taken, but none of the bizarre behaviour that accompanied them. He looked either side of us to check 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 tetchy 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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