Teaching can be a lonely job. Which is surprising, given that we spend most of our working day in contact with others. But where teaching is unusually stressful is that we work in periods of high intensity, followed by spells of relative calm. That is tiring and can lead us to dwell on problems during our short down times. Thus, the moments when we could be recharging our batteries are often wasted. For many teachers, the chance of a chat by the water cooler is an unexperienced opportunity.
We can be our own worst enemies, as well. How many of us have said, out loud or in our head, something along the lines of ‘it’s alright for her, she’s got time to sit their gossiping’? But actually, we can all make a few moments for some conversation with colleagues. It might just be a few words about TV, or a shared moan about Jimmy Jones in Year 9. And if we have time for that, then we have time to offer some support to our fellow teachers; this need not involve much extra work and, who knows, by supporting someone else, we may well end up benefitting ourselves.
Here are some very simple tips we can use to make ourselves available to support our colleagues. They are low level suggestions, and are unlikely to appear on a job description, but will send important messages to others working in our school.
An Open-Door Policy
An open door means ‘come in’. A closed one means ‘I’m busy.’ A member of our department wanting to share an idea, get some feedback or just have a moan is going to be put off by having to knock.
(Incidentally, the position of our door also gives the same message to students; who are far more likely to seek help and advice if it is open.)
Being a Good Listener
I think most of us would agree that much of the training we are forced to endure, especially the whole school sessions often at the beginning of term, are a waste of time. We are either forced to sit and be bored for a couple of hours so that a box can be ticked on an OFSTED checklist, or the senior manager responsible for ‘staff development’ can ensure our time is occupied. A session, however, from which all staff can benefit is one on active listening.
Giving our undivided attention; offering feedback in the form of nods, affirmative sounds and asking questions rather than offering solutions. These are among the key attributes of constructive listening. So often a good listener will enable the person speaking to them to answer their own problems, just by talking. There is little better support we can give than being an effective sounding board for another’s concerns.
Using the Staff Room
How easy it is to give up a break time preparing for the next lesson, or marking a few books, or simply not feeling it worthwhile to march over to the main building to queue for a cup of tea. But ‘break’ is a misnomer. Really, those twenty minutes in the morning, or hour at lunch, can be the most productive of the day.
They combine a chance to relax, establish and firm up friendships, complete the myriad of mini meetings which ensure the best schools flow smoothly and off load the stresses of a bad morning. Sitting in our classroom and completing some paperwork takes us out of that environment. There is not a teacher alive who does not believe in the value of supporting colleagues, but if we are tucked away in our own private empire, we are not around to contribute to the process.
Teaching is NOT a Competition
One of the biggest failings of successive Governments is to view the quality of teaching as something that can be measured. As soon as that mindset is in place, a hierarchy is established with those at the top lauded, and those ‘struggling’ at the bottom under threat.
We all know that teaching is a many faceted discipline, but Governments and the media find that difficult to understand. They want simplicity (because, of course, they do not really care about teachers and students, they are only interested in promoting themselves) and so set their own criteria to measure success. Usually, that is exam results. Every teacher knows such a conclusion is nonsensical. Still, we have to live with it.
A great way to be supportive is to break that mindset. Share resources, team teach, offer to take a tricky pupil out of the way for a lesson, add a colleague’s photocopying to our own, volunteer for a trip, offer to relieve some pressure by taking a class, covering a duty or preparing some resources.
Any short-term additional work will be countered when our good deeds are reciprocated later, and we are contributing to the truth that it is collaboration and not competition that breeds success.
Allied to this method of support is the idea of talking up colleagues. Sending out positive vibes to parents, students, colleagues and managers can be a very effective, and effort free, way of supporting a fellow teacher. The affirmative news spreads, sticks and raises confidence. Failure is often a matter of perception, and when that perception is challenged good news results.
Spreading encouraging information about a colleague can also help ourselves. The theory of the law of attraction states that similar kinds attract. Thus, positive people are surrounded by other positive types and a spiral of positivity results. Now, there’s a positive idea. The converse is of course true. Thus, by spreading upbeat thoughts, we ourselves become more optimistic in our outlook.
Asking For Help Encourages Others to Do the Same
A colleague will frequently not ask for support because they are worried about how they will be perceived. This harks back to the growth of competitiveness in teaching. Nobody wants to fail, and more importantly, nobody dares be considered a failure. (Even though, as we know, the best teachers sometimes get it completely wrong – it is just that they admit to their errors and learn from them.)
A great way to support colleagues is to be open in asking for help ourselves. Such transparency encourages others to do the same. Then we can share our experiences, discuss what works and what does not, and move forwards.
There was a boy I taught towards the end of my career. He was extremely difficult, and although I could just about stop him from disturbing others – mostly – I could not get him to do work himself. Plus, at least once a lesson there would be an outburst or disruption which would centre around him. I raised the matter with a general email, asking for advice with dealing with the boy. Certainly, there were a couple of colleagues who responded with ‘he’s ok for me,’ (although, I knew, he wasn’t). More importantly, over the next week or so, several others of his teachers approached me to say that they too struggled with the boy.
I was told off by the deputy for ‘raising negative matters about a student’, but he (the deputy) was an idiot, so that didn’t matter. Crucially, by discussing the boy between ourselves, we developed a plan to deal with his issues.
I am not going to claim he turned into a model pupil, but his behaviour improved, his outbursts reduced, and he even did some work.
So mutual support helped me, my colleagues and, most important of all, the boy in question.
And on that happy note, we’ll end.