Avoiding the Staff Lounge?


cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by Je suis Samuel

I recently read an interesting article on the “Three Do’s and Dont’s of Transformative Teacher Leadership” and although there are some great points to this piece, one stuck out to me as way off:

Don’t hang out too long in the Teachers’ Lounge (if at all)

Let’s be honest: the teachers’ lounge is a sacred space in a school where teachers and other staff vent their frustrations about what happens in and around the school. While we teachers need a space like that for our mental health, it can also weigh people down. For a teacher leader, especially one who needs to help transform, the teachers’ lounge can often hold such a leader back, especially if he or she listens too often to the gossip and complaints. Plus, it’s easy to get pulled into the chatter, which could spell disaster for teacher-administrator relationships if the teacher leader is part of that.

The author then goes on to list another “don’t” which, in my mind, contradicted the above:

Don’t: Isolate Yourself from the Rest of the School

After a while, we may get huge tasks that occupy large amounts of our time, but the worst thing we can do as teacher leaders is to disconnect ourselves from the rest of the school community. When we get certain rooms or spaces all to ourselves, this tempts us to work on our own so that we can get our task done in complete silence. Yet it also allows us to hide from the rest of the school. We ought to stay connected to the rest of the school, understanding the school culture and, ultimately, as many students as possible within our realms.

Huh?

On one hand it is saying that a space in a school is a place for a toxic culture so avoid it, but on the other hand it is saying staying connected with the school community.  So what if the school community is in the toxic staff lounge? Do we ignore “these” people?

It is not that I disagree that in some schools, staff lounges can be place where teachers complain about whatever, whether that be students, administrators, parents, even other teachers, but does it have to be that place?  Does a place like that even have to exist?

I know that I have been in schools where this existed and I had this notion that I would simply avoid it, but then I noticed that many “positive” people still go to those rooms, so what will happen to them?  Let’s not kid ourselves, every school has a culture, it is whether that culture is positive or negative that is to be determined.  Eventually that culture consumes people in one way or the other and when it is positive, it can change people’s mindsets to do great things, but when it is negative, it could eventually suck the life out of people or have those bright spots choose to leave altogether.  Ignoring the “negativity” in the lounge is not something that will make it go away; it is simply ignoring a problem.

So instead of avoiding that culture in a previous role, I decided to face it head on.  I remember going there and trying to joke, keep the mood upbeat, and actually calling out anyone that started to talk negatively.  The “lounge” was a place meant for colleagues to come together, so why not make that experience positive?  When the negative talk started with anyone, I would actually say, “this is not the place for the conversation but feel free to come talk to me if you need some help.”  Eventually the staff lounge started to be a place that people felt more comfortable to come as teachers don’t come into the profession to complain about it.  They come to make a difference.

I will tell you straight up that this was not an easy thing to do.  Ignoring it is.  Actually it is really easy, although ignoring it can eventually wear you down because it creates an “us vs. them” culture, which is a toxic.  But here’s the thing…leadership is not an easy job and sometimes you have to make tough decisions and do things that put you out of your comfort zone for the good of the culture.  True leadership is about others, not about yourself.

Avoiding the “staff lounge” might be good for you, but is it good for the school?

12 thoughts on “Avoiding the Staff Lounge?

  1. scotwright

    Great words! I totally agree with everything you said. Eventually, positivity will win out but it is a battle to beat out the negativity!

  2. shanegjcunningham

    Gotta agree George, I read that piece myslef last week and had similar thoughts, in particular the 'us v them' part. And yeah, if someone does have a genuine grievance, is it going to be resolved in the teachers lounge/staff room? I doubt it.

  3. Steve

    George,
    Wow, great topic! A couple of thoughts I'd like to share. I was an assistant principal in a school where the principal spent a fair amount of time in a negative teacher's lounge to try to transform the environment. However, it backfired…The positive teachers began to associate him as a part of the negative environment.
    As a personal aside, I've just begun a blog in a similar vein as yours. I hope you dont' mind me asking, but I'd love to have you stop by and share your thoughts.. .www.cuttingeducator.com
    Regards,
    Steve

  4. Bruce Ferrington

    Indeed – true leadership is not about doing things "to" people, it's about doing things "for" and "with" people. Great stuff.

  5. Mark Battistella

    Mark Batta
    I concur, in that bringing a positive attitude as a leader into the staff room is a proactive way of infiltrating an existing 'negative' culture.  
    Your strategy of indicating to colleagues that the staff room is not the place for discussions of a 'particular' nature is terrific…. I think I might also employ this strategy when teachers invariably say to me in the staff room during breaks, "have you got a minute"?  I think most of us know that it's never a minute!  Flexibility and availability are essential leadership ingredients … But when we respond to everyone's immediate needs we continue to miss opportunities of empowering staff to problem solve & to formulate appropriate plans!

  6. Craig Kupke

    I initially thought, yep that sounds great when I read those two points but I think you're right on the money with your comments. It's too easy just to escape and be too busy. Ive been in that situation and you need all your leaders to engage with the negative influences if nothing else. Set the example.

  7. Royan Lee

    I can't stand that 'avoid the staff room' trope for the exact reason you mention. It's defeatist, arrogant, and misdirected. I also don't like the idea that talking frankly about this difficult job is automatically equated with negativity. If the staff room is a place where teachers feel safe to be honest sound each other, then I see that as only positive.

  8. Lisa Noble

    I'm with Royan on this one. I have rediscovered my staff room this year (after some years of avoidance due to duty schedules, extra-currics and a fear of that negativity). Lured by a new VP who installed a Tassimo machine and bakes fresh cookies in the staff room at least once a week, I've begun to make my way down there again. It's not a bad spot, after all, and I think one which is a safe space to vent when you need to, celebrate when you can, and wrestle with big ideas. Today, we were talking about how to find the balance between teaching effective computation skills and effective problem-solving skills in math. It was meaningful, inter-division chat, and it's important. Not sure where else that can happen. For me, the rediscovery of my staff room has been one of the benefits of the "pause"

  9. Nikki Bowers

    I have been a principal in a school for five years where we have focused on changing the school by changing the language, people, and systems. One of those "systems" is the staff lounge. We do not complain in there. It is an unspoken rule that has taken time to establish. We laugh, share ideas, and talk about our families, weekends, vacations, etc. It a place where teachers can get away for about 25 minutes and I do, too.

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