At the start of 2021, I returned to my teaching position after a whole year off. (I can recommend taking leave during a global pandemic. While it’s brutal on international travel plans, it really is convenient for catching up on DIY and reading.)
But a year’s absence meant that by mid-January I felt an unexpected nervousness about heading back. It wasn’t the students I was worried about but returning to the staffroom. How had the lay of the land changed? What new cliques had formed in my absence? What office in-jokes would I now be out of? Would I still be considered one of the ‘younger’ teachers, based on a median average?
My colleagues appeared happy to see me on the first day, but their enthusiasm started to wane when I spoke about my break using adjectives like restorative and enriching. ‘And how was 2020 for you?’ I asked them sincerely, to which they emitted sharp laughs and reached for another Arnott’s Assorted Cream.
As such, I have resolved to rehabilitate my (previously healthy) relationships at work, thanks to my very own guide, ‘Nine Steps to Being a Better Colleague’.*
Let’s face it: you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your IT staff.
1. Refer to colleagues by their names. This involves learning the names of new staff members in the first instance, and ‘relearning’ the names you’ve forgotten or always gotten wrong, such as the 11 Mikes and the teacher you’ve known for too many years to check if it’s Christine or Caroline.
2. Learn something new about your colleagues. This may include preferred holiday destination, spouse and offspring names, hobbies and pets. Try to use this information in water-cooler conversation, e.g. “So, will you be taking Trish and Max to Launceston this Easter? Is someone dog-sitting Jaws?” Note: make it sound like you’re interested in them as a colleague, rather than as a potential target for burglary.
3. Be more patient with colleagues. Let’s face it: you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your IT staff.** Try to be less judgmental of the teacher who loudly huffs every time he has to answer the door. Try to sneer less at the overly cheerful teacher who sanctimoniously drinks herbal teas throughout the day.
4. Talk less. Research suggests we should listen 75% of the time and speak only 25% of the time… which will be awkward if the person you’re communicating with has read the same research, leaving 50% of the conversation unaccounted for.
5. Consider your body language. Roxette was wrong: don’t listen with your heart. Listen with your body – and preferably a body that is open and welcoming, without crossed arms or legs. Best practice is to adopt a yoga Standing Tree pose whenever a colleague is speaking to you.
6. Get involved! During staff meetings, raise your hand and ask a question – though, not 30 seconds before an after-school PD is scheduled to finish.
7. Replace the paper in the photocopier. No explanation needed.
8. Avoid all gossip. Yes, even when there’s no-one else near the (well-stocked) photocopier except you and two of the Mikes, and one of them has overheard Jan say something scandalous about Jen (or was it Jen saying something scandalous about Jan? See Point 1.).
9. Forgive others’ failings. And while you’re at it, forgive your own too. If your goal of Colleague of the Year doesn’t pan out, try turning up one morning with a fresh pack of Arnott’s Assorted Creams, then smile and start again.
*Guide yet to be fully tested.
**Apologies to IT staff. You are valuable and important. I actually wanted to write ‘PE staff’ but was too scared of getting on their bad side.