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Significant dimensions of workplace learning

There is no single staffroom. We all understand and negotiate it differently depending on who we are.

The Japanese have an expression “a man (sic) is what room he is in right now”. Put more simply this means that a person’s behaviour is dependent on the environment in which she or he find themselves. We react differently and therefore portray ourselves differently depending on the situation and the environment in which we find ourselves.

We don’t, however, have an innate understanding of how ‘to be’ in these ‘rooms’ but learn as we go along. Our understanding of these different ‘rooms’ and the person we are expected to be in each ‘room’ is developed as we engage with these spaces. Furthermore, while these spaces might look similar and indeed might expect similar ‘people’ to occupy them they are far from being uniform. Each has different norms, cultures, expectations, rules, roles, and practices, what Rossi and colleagues refer to as dimensions. By exploring the dimensions that exist, the impact of the departmental staffroom/PE office on beginning teachers’ careers can begin to be understood.

Rossi and colleagues suggested that the dimensions that played the most significant role in framing their understanding of workplace learning were: social tasks, performance and practice, identity/subjectivities, spatiality, and micropolitics. While it is important to understand that each of these dimensions overlap in each of the five case studies in the book (and therefore blogs that follow) they are presented in isolation to help the reader better understand how they shaped the young teachers and impacted on the person they were required/expected to be in a given ‘room’. As such – and in the words of the authors – what follows serves as a “jumping off point” for the next series of blogs and provides us with a focus for our discussions this week.

Each workplace has its own ecology or microclimate. Consequently “certain social tasks…[are] of crucial importance in moving from the symbolic periphery to the centre [of expertise]”. Indeed, in order to hold (or even aspire) to a more central position pre-service and beginning teachers are expected to forge an understanding of what it means to be a teacher and to teach in this specific microclimate. To do this they [the new teachers] need to understand and ‘master’ three interconnected task systems i.e. the teaching task system, organization task system, and social task system.

Beyond the task of teaching a class the tasks of significant importance in this study (and therefore the staffroom/office itself) were the organization task system (i.e. the way in which new teachers prepared and planned for teaching) and the social task system (i.e. the ways in which new teachers created and maintain “cordial relations” with supervising/cooperating teachers, other teaching staff and non-teaching staff members). Both of these systems served as a way of considering the range of tasks that new teachers must engage with – tasks that only seem to superficially relate to the work they ‘signed up’ to do.

Another way of positioning the practicum is as a performance or indeed as a site of a performance. While the practicum hasn’t previously been “theorized as a performance” it seems to lend itself to the idea that the ‘room’ we’re in influences the person we are being. Put more simply the pre-service or beginning teacher is required to represent themselves differently depending on the context and the audience. Rossi and colleagues position “the departmental office/staffroom as a stage upon which the drama that is the practicum is constructed”. In doing so they suggest that the individual is then able to present her or himself in the appropriate way which means showing how they “value and ascribe great worth to the learning experiences within the subject department office”.

Alongside the idea of performance comes the idea of identity/subjectivity or, as the authors describe it, the idea of ‘subject positions’ i.e. being either positioned by others as a novice, student, or apprentice or taking on the same position(s) voluntarily. In this way the new teacher is seen to perform or practice the role that is ‘expected’ of them. This idea points to the notion that teachers need to make sense of themselves within the department (i.e. how to participate through their gestures, actions, behaviours and tastes) before they are granted ‘permission’ to move towards the centre and have influence over the actions and perceptions of the department. In this way “pre-service teachers’ participation in the subject department office functions as a site not only for learning but also for identity formation.”

Similarly the ‘space’ of the office is significant. How the space is conceptualised i.e. how it dictates the way in which people ‘act’ and ‘be’ in this space (by sitting next to each other, near the kettle, in the head’s seat etc.), has important implications for the way people themselves are perceived. The ways in which problems such as staff numbers are rationalised in terms of spaces to work can have a profound effect on individuals. Always being the one to answer the door or make the tea says a lot about the relative position of the member of staff in a certain space.

The final system, and the one that framed the entire project, was micropolitics. Given the often isolated and geographically remote positioning of the physical education office, the way in which people were managed within a department and within the wider politics of a school was significant. People of differing interests, goals, status, power and authority are often found in physical education departments (at least in the UK). Individuals who hold different responsibilities around the school and yet who congregate in one place. Power – to be used both for influence and protection – comes from the traditional authority-base positions in schools. However, influence is also situational, dynamic and flexible and can be used to “maintain, defend or advance” our personal interests. The flow of power (which often misses the new teacher) makes certain practices possible and others either unimagined or impossible. When a teacher is able to impose their influence then they are able to “leverage a situation towards their advantage” but this is not something that comes to a new teacher either quickly or easily.

In navigating the different and yet intertwined systems of social task, performance and practice, identity/subjectivity, spatiality, and micropolitics the new teacher is required to understand, exist and even prosper in a space they have just ‘jump-off” into. While it is understandable to see it as daunting and not always ideal it is not understandable that we know so little about workplace learning and yet put so much stock in it. Only in opening our eyes to the ‘mess’ that teachers young and old have to navigate can we begin to be positioned to understand what we are letting our teacher in for.

Rossi, T., lisahunter, Christensen, E. & Macdonald, D. (2015). Workplace learning in Physical Education: Emerging teachers’ stories from the staffroom and beyond. London: Routledge.


There is little more daunting than trying to find your feet in a new school - you are the new kid on the block; the one everyone looks at, trying to figure out what you are all about, while perhaps whispering a comment to another staff member. At the same time you are trying to make a positive impression, learn about the unwritten rules (don't, whatever you do, use Mr. Smith's' mug) that run the workplace, for better or worse. As an experienced teacher in a new school this is challenging.  As a pre-service teacher it is akin to navigating across an ocean that can be perfectly calm one minute and rough the next - you spend a considerable amount of time just trying to keep your head above water.

The social constructs of a school are often not explicitly taught in PETE programs. Pedagogy, curriculum, and classroom management rule. Yet, as the blog points out, we need to learn very quickly what "room" we are in at any given moment so that we can respond appropriately and leverage the best from each "room" we enter. While the blog notes that social tasks may only seem to superficially relate to teaching, I believe the reality is completely different.

As a pre-service teacher one might approach this from the angle of “What’s in it for me?”. This might sound very self-serving, and it is, but it only serves to strengthen the practicum experience and expedite the value a pre-service teacher brings to the school environment (and thus their teaching). Here are some ways I feel pre-service teachers can do this:


  • Find the expert - identify people who will be your experts within the school. Who knows every unwritten rule? Who is innovative? Who do the students talk about “Mr./Mrs. A is the best teacher… his/her classes are amazing”? Engage with these people by asking them to share their expertise with you - how is it that they can get struggling and disengaged students to be the first ones to arrive at their classroom? I have yet to meet a person who doesn’t respond positively to praise and/or validation. This is also an excellent way to create a dialogue between you and other members of staff.
  • Figure out your sales pitch. You may have an idea but selling it as your own might not garner the response, or buy-in, you had anticipated. Sharing ideas from a 3rd party perspective, and asking for advice or help with implementation, will help bring support to your corner.
  • Confirm verbal plans in writing - When are assemblies? Who is using what equipment/ space and when? What do you need me to do to get ready for this event? Communication, when done in a timely fashion, prevents confusion ahead of time and can diffuse many a situation in the heat of the moment.
  • Apply classroom management techniques in every “room”. We know our students vary in their preferred learning styles - and their preferred medium of recognition. Adults are no different. Does sharing a resource, paying it forward, getting something out or putting it away for a colleague make their day? Ask yourself “how can I add value to this situation?” Ask your colleagues  “How can I help you?”

Physical Education teachers often have to work harder to be appreciated and respected by their peers yet I would argue that Physical Education is one of the only subjects where the “side effects” of the subject matter can positively impact every other aspect of learning. Even as a pre-service teacher you can (and should) share the latest research with your principal on how movement benefits the brain or why classroom activity breaks facilitate learning. Not only will you be adding value to the school environment, perhaps precipitating change, you will also be adding value to your stock as a teacher.

Ashley Casey
About me
On Monday 15 June at 22:33 Ashley Casey said
Thanks Jo for your considered response. Indeed thanks to Andy, Amanda, Joey and Jo for their words and ideas. I think, reading through these responses, that we all have different experiences as beginning teachers. Some of us work in isolation because we are in a  department on our own and some in isolation because we cannot find (or do not want to find) acceptance in the department's we find ourselves. Others find other places to belong - be it on Twitter or in other departmental staff rooms. The need to fit in is, perhaps, not as a essential as it once was but in a large department (even small schools tend to have two or three teachers in the PE department) there is a need to fit it or sit out.  The fact that we have preconceived ideas of what it means to be a PE teacher is a little worrying. We are asking young people to fit in and negotiate their identities. Jo is right when suggesting that we need to find out what's in it for us because if we see it as important then we are more likely to make the effort. It shouldn't be about fitting in but it should be about finding a way of thriving. That doesn't mean you have to do things you are uncomfortable with but it does mean that you might need to find the common ground. Don't give up trying to find it and, well as Joey said, then are always others ways to find the support you need. 

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