Heads and Senior Leaders: are they welcome in the staffroom?

Last weekend I posted a short poll:

‘A young woman who was a pupil at the school where I was head has just secured her first SLT post. V pleased for & proud of her. It’s an internal promotion & she’s been told that as SLT she has to stop going into the staffroom. Quick poll? Are your SLT ‘allowed’ in the staffroom?’

I followed the poll by saying: ‘As a SL/head in 3 schools I always went into the staffroom – I felt it was really important for building relationships/giving people the opportunity to ‘catch’ you for a quick chat.  Trying to avoid the ‘us/them’ division. What’s your experience & your views? Thanks.’   

Over the course of the weekend a significant number of people responded to the poll, and added their comments.  Many thanks to everyone who contributed.  I think this is Twitter at its best. Different comments made me think, and led to some interesting debate.  I decided that writing this up as a blog post might be of use and interest to others.

I recognised that one of the issues here is how you manage your relationships across the school when you are internally promoted.  Your new role will have given you some leadership responsibility with respect to some of those who were your peers, and may well be your friends.  I don’t think you can assume this will make no difference to your interaction with them, and have already written about this here: a post I have sent to the young woman concerned.  It’s a situation which requires sensitive handling, I think.  We all need to enact every role in a way which is true to who we are and what we stand for, but I think it may be naïve to insist nothing at all will change in the dynamic between you and your colleagues.

As one commentator said: “It’s probably a clumsy way of saying you need to ensure you have a healthy balance of being supportive and approachable while also maintaining a degree of ‘professional distance’. This is often the most difficult part of the transition from ML to SLT imo.”

Some tweeters asked why it had never struck this young woman in the past that SLT weren’t in the staffroom.  This made me wonder whether it wasn’t an issue of being ‘allowed’ through the door, but that if SLT do come into the staffroom, it’s for a specific purpose, and they don’t use it at a social space.  This was summed up for me by one comment: “Yes [they are allowed in], but they don’t stay.”  Some people pointed out ruefully that no one goes into the staff room much/at all in some cases, at the moment… And one teacher observed that they didn’t have a staffroom in their school any more.

There was the suggestion that the decision not to go into the staffroom could come from consideration for the staff’s privacy.  One comment was: “A head I worked with would tap on the door as he walked in, a gesture that showed he was going into their space. I thought it showed respect.”

It was pointed out that often SLT were on duty around the school at breaks and at lunchtime, and I see the sense of this.  I remember talking to my deputies about this – asking them not to spend breaks and lunch catching up on email, tempting though that might be, but being out and about when the students were.  I was, too, and we all did duties, and had lunch in the dining hall.  But SLT never going into the staffroom, and never having a break at breaktimes, seems to me unreasonable and unhelpful.  

One person who commented, a technician, said that support staff were only able to use the staffroom “if there are no teachers in it”.  This leads to a different debate about the relationship between teaching and support staff.  I really hope there aren’t many schools that treat support staff as ‘other’.  They are staff, so why should they not use the staffroom?  And, by the same token, aren’t Senior Leaders, and the head, members of staff, too?  I don’t find an ‘us and them’ mentality ever to be productive and helpful, though a sense of that definitely emerged in some of the Twitter comments.

This observation from a new Senior Leader made me thoughtful: “I was told that some staff complained that a member of SLT was going into the staffroom and it meant that they didn’t have a space to relax and speak freely. I was told to stop going in, and now have a kettle in my office. Not like I get breaks anyway…”

One teacher who commented said, “Only if they don’t grass up their colleagues letting off steam, so that’s a no.”  I replied that when I was a deputy, I realised that an important part of my role was to help the head to understand how the staff were feeling, especially if there was discontent.  This was never about ‘grassing up’, or about running to the head with tales of who had said what.  It WAS about ensuring the head was aware of sources of anxiety, stress or frustration.  Only by knowing about it could the head and senior team work to try to resolve issues, reassure, inform, explain the rationale – or, of course, change their minds and perhaps the direction of travel.  Leaders at all levels need challengers as well as champions – Tom Sherrington has written about that very well in this post.  The most dangerous thing for any leader is to be surrounded by people who never tell them the truth.  And leaders need to listen, especially when they are hearing something they wish they weren’t.

I always remember Steve Munby saying, “If you’re a leader and you walk into a room and it all goes quiet, that’s when you need to stay, not leave.”  This isn’t about muzzling and muting people, but it is about properly listening, understanding and empathising, and responding appropriately.

The vast majority of those who responded to the poll, and who commented, were very much in the ‘of course they should be there’ camp, and I will finish this post by including some of their observations – some from heads, some from Senior Leaders, and many from a range of staff members.

“I genuinely enjoy being in a team and I like to hear all the great things the team get up to at the weekends. I also want to be available for small talk as so much can be figured out that way.”

“The best school I’ve worked in – we had a ‘social’ on a Friday after work in the staffroom. Lots of staff would come, from the head down. In general we had a great staffroom culture – distance between SLT & rank & file seemed small. All on the same side. Helped.”

“At other schools (& when I was SLT in another school) that idea of professional distance was really emphasised. I don’t personally think that the benefits of that outweigh the costs. You need real team spirit, especially in schools with tougher cohorts.”

“I get that if you have SLT in the room you might not talk freely, but then a school where you can’t talk freely to SLT makes me wary.”

“Seriously? The idea that Senior Leaders should detach from staff is a damaging one. You can still be a professional in the staffroom.”

“Quickest way to create a ‘them and us’ culture. Surely that’s not a healthy way to run a school?”

“In the staffroom, I’m just me. It’s not the place to talk to me as a principal but rather as human, person, colleague. Can’t imagine not having that space.”

“Only the bad schools I’ve worked in have looked to segregate staff according to rank. I can’t see any benefits.”

“The more we get to talk, the better. Relationships are key, combined with an understanding that progress may be made if we challenge.”

“This makes me really sad. A staffroom is for everyone and the culture and climate should be such that all are welcome.”

“I did limit my time there to allow staff to have a chill out space away from SLT. But I continued socialising with my non-SLT colleagues, which is often frowned upon. But honestly, if you’re visible in your role, work hard & walk your talk, then these things really don’t matter!”

“That’s ridiculous. It should be encouraged. It’s a great way for staff to see the other side of you, as you are just a person having your lunch! It’s also great to show your visibility, gauge the temperature of the staff and engage in some great discussions.”

“I feel equally as comfortable sharing a small moan about a stressful day with any member of the SLT as I do another classroom teacher. We are all a team, pulling together.”

“That feels very sad. I withdrew from a leadership interview after visiting a school, as the head told me that ‘SLT obviously aren’t welcome in there’ when we walked by the staffroom. Along with other things it told me a lot about the culture, and it wasn’t for me.”

“We are actively encouraged to go in! Nothing worse than a disconnected SLT.”

“I would be curious to know the rationale behind this and what all staff feel about it. Personally it feels disjointed and a divide across the school when this is such a crucial time for unity.”

“I hate divides. Even when a student is working at the school, they should be allowed in the staffroom. It’s about trust, respect and learning.”

“I’m staggered this is even a thing in 2020! I think the clue is in the word ‘team’. Great leaders work with their teams, not in isolation, and whatever the reason for the divide, the leadership are responsible for fixing it.”

“That makes me so sad. The staffroom is often where you get to know the staff on a more personal level. I drop in several times a week and enjoy the camaraderie and chat with colleagues.”

“So important to hear what’s going on ‘on the ground’, and it helps you to be visible to staff.”

“I would perhaps expect a bit of a change in behaviour – not sitting and chatting with staff extensively, or indulging in the gossip/clique component of the staffroom that can develop. But banning them seems a bit draconian. Like the equivalent of ‘Don’t smile before Christmas’…”

“Our head comes in regularly at different times of day, and at the start of breaktime for 5-10 minutes. She doesn’t hang around, as she says it’s our space, but she comes up so we can catch up and have informal chats. So important SLT are seen around school by students and staff!”

“I’m SLT – and I’m also the person who tops up the teabag and coffee supplies in the staffroom, checks the urn, the dishwasher etc – there would be chaos if they stopped me going into the staffroom!”

And finally: “I would be so sad if my SLT weren’t in the staffroom with us…”

So thanks again to everyone who voted and contributed to the conversation.  These were the final results of the poll:

3.9% of 2910 responses is, I realise, 120 schools….

And thanks for reading – I’m aware this is a long post!

Related posts: Us and them

‘You’re a senior leader first and a teacher second…’ Really?

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