• A
  • A
Switch colours to view the site as you prefer!

Staffroom Micropolitics

We need to see the staffroom less as a place to be and more as a place to negotiate and decide who we can be.

What has emerged from this series of blogs is a very real sense that new teachers are not free to simply be who they want to be. That is not to say that someone from any other walk of life is free to be what they want to be but it does leave us to question how much of our ‘selves’ is controlled and determined by the ways in which we hope, expect and are expected to be seen. Indeed, and as this blog sets out to explore, the politics of transition from non-teacher to teacher has the very real potential to either shape or reshape (or both) ‘who’ beginning teacher are and will be in the future. 

In the context of the workplace, the micropolitical dynamics of the staffroom of any school can have a significant impact on new teachers (both new to the profession and new to the school). That said “how beginning teachers negotiate the micropolitical contexts of the HPE staffroom and how this impacts upon their lives, learning and development as beginning teachers” is something we know very little about. 

Currently, and as has been extensively reported in the media and literature, there is an expectation that a particular story of physical education pervades every school and that it is told and retold across the generations. Given the evidence provided across the 11 chapters of this book perhaps we should more fully consider the different and individual stories that teachers live in their schools. Rossi and colleagues set out to capture “the differences, diversity and complexity of beginning teachers’ experiences of learning to ‘read’, navigate and influence the micropolitical reality” of schools. They did this by drawing on the contrastingly different experiences that two female teachers had in their first year of employment.  Both worked in large departments but while Millie was the lone female out of five teachers in her department, Sally was one of four female teachers in a larger department of eight. The ultimate aim of Rossi and colleagues was “to draw attention to, evoke and illustrate the complexity of beginning teachers’ micropolitical experiences and learning in the staffroom”

Working in a department made up almost entirely of male teachers is not an easy thing to do especially as a new teacher. This is made doubly difficult when some of your staffroom colleagues are described as ‘legendary teachers’ due to their considerable length of service to both the department and the story of the department. One way of surviving the initial few weeks and months is to ‘go with the flow’ and ‘not rock the boat’. Yet in the very act of playing a role that allowed her to best fit in Millie accepted that things would be as they had always been – at least for a while. 

While maintaining the departmental story of physical education was at least understandable and Millie certainly wasn’t in a position to change the story others were. In contrast Louis, a new but experienced teacher who had arrived at the same time as Millie but from another school, quickly positioned himself as an ‘ideas man’ prepared to voice his concerns and ideas. This blatant disrespected for the department’s history, however, resulted in Louis being omitted from conversations and ridiculed by his new colleagues.

The stories that are allowed to be told about physical education have the biggest impact.

While maintaining the departmental story of physical education was at least understandable and Millie certainly wasn’t in a position to change the story others were. In contrast Louis, a new but experienced teacher who had arrived at the same time as Millie but from another school, quickly positioned himself as an ‘ideas man’ prepared to voice his concerns and ideas. This blatant disrespected for the department’s history, however, resulted in Louis being omitted from conversations and ridiculed by his new colleagues. 

Millie was forced to play the role of a conservative teacher so she “could establish and safeguard the ‘professional’ working conditions she desired”. This meant ‘accepting’ the ideas of the ‘legendary teachers’ who, while not in formal positions of authority, were nevertheless “positioned powerfully” and “(re)produced and maintained their desired working conditions through informal non-authoritative means”. By playing the ‘newbie’ she was able to get along, unlike Louis who was afforded little respect by the rest of the department. 

In contrast Sally quickly found likeminded allies in her new department. Her allies/colleagues had all graduated in recent years from the same university degree programme and had the same approach to the curriculum. The other half of the department came from other universities and while they lack the curriculum focus of Sally’s allies they specialised in specific sports and created a much looser group – the ‘sport specialized group. Sally felt that the ‘curriculum people’ were definitely ‘the kind of people’ she was and, as a group, they connect both in and out of school. 

Despite the different factions in the staffroom there was a collegiality that Millie had lacked. Each of the groups (‘Curriculum’ and ‘Sport Specialized’) covered different aspects of the job of the department but this also meant that everything got done. In fact her position in the curriculum group and her association with their stories helped her frame “the possibility of what she came to know, how she positioned herself and was positioned”. 

In both of the scenarios it becomes clear that “the social space of the staffrooms significantly shaped and reshaped the beginning teachers’ micropolitical learning, positioning and practices throughout their first year of teaching”. Significantly it was the stories that were allowed to be told about physical education that had the biggest impact. Where these stories were contestable then different possibilities existed.  However, when these stories were fixed and where the interests of the powerful were the only interests that were served then teachers had to become “micropolitically literate” in order to navigate and cope with their working conditions. 

The stories of physical education that we tell through our actions and inactions and the way we allow them to change or fight for them to remain unchanged have significant impact on the next generation of teachers. Those in positions of power (be these formal or informal positions) are the gatekeepers of future practice and they need to be open to a debate about the possible futures of physical education. Staying the same – or it ain’t broke don’t fix it – is a conscious decision to be consistent. It is a decision not to roll with the times. It is ‘fitting in’ and ‘not rocking the boat’ but is it the way to decide the future for new teachers? I don’t think it is…do you?

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

Reading this blog post gave me pause to reflect on how my teaching career began and the narrative I grew up with as a teacher, and prior to that as a university student preparing to be a teacher. I certainly wasn’t trained for the political machinations that occur in staffrooms, but I’d seen enough of people to know that life and relationships are dependent on modifiable and unmodifiable factors . Modifiable factors were a challenge, unmodifiable factors were downright frustrating.  I’d started to recognise that different types of people (social leaders, rebels, conscientious academics, conformists, extroverts, introverts, fringe dwellers and blends of each and in between) all played a role in that rich tapestry. And in the educational setting that I worked in (a government run, public education system) you often saw them all. And it was often the luck of the draw as to how arable the land for your development as a teacher was. 

One group that I have to give special mention to are the “legendary teachers” that star in the blog post. I’ve seen them – thinking now I can still see them. I won’t go into stereotypes, but they seem to have a certain look. Outwardly confident, I worked out quite quickly that they were actually very afraid. So caught up in the traditional narrative about what PE should be, they’d forgotten what it was that made PE exciting, and they overcompensated with inflexibility and routine thinking. The hardest nuts to crack when it comes to change, but they also provide a leader with the biggest rewards when they do.

Spoiler Alert - I’m writing this from the viewpoint of a teacher with 30 years’ experience who is suggesting that some things about schools today are broken. Beginning teachers can face challenges that they have scant control over - siloed faculties of learning, teacher centred traditional teaching methods, little or no impetus for change – indeed no perceived need for change. To decide to take on these things takes courage and involves risk. Happily, I’ve noticed (in Australia, anyway) that more and more beginning teachers aren’t universally afraid to accept the challenge in manageable chunks. It may be they see the need to prove themselves as able candidates for the scarce PE jobs around. All it seems they need are permission and support. True leaders (not managers – there is a difference) need to be ready to provide both.

Back to my story. Personally, I fell on my feet. My first Head of Department was (and still is) an enlightened educator and leader who ensured that his PE department ran with a finely balanced mixture of process, procedure and innovation. He supported risk takers, had student learning at the centre of his (and by extension, our) practice and accepted feedback from his colleagues. In many ways I still aspire be his “Mini Me”, except I have to work at it constantly, where it seemed (and still is) to be natural for him.

I do know of other people in my training cohort that had a very different experience – very similar to the Millie character. The lack of voice and influence in that situation was a constant source of frustration until they moved, or gained promotion. Happily, they say, they didn’t repeat the lessons they were taught. 

One character whose shoes I would hate to walk in constantly was Louis. Someone that has made a start in teaching, been brave enough to move to a new setting (it does take bravery, believe me) and has enough passion about his practice to take on established thinking, only to be smacked down by his “legendary” peers, would certainly test my commitment. An enlightened leader would have let him run with something win/win – for his own confidence and to allow the nay-sayers an opportunity to develop some trust for his ideas. I’ve been there, and I’m still there from time to time but my faculty trust the reasons behind what I do. Largely. Mostly. Sometimes.

I’d like to say that in tying my story and the story of the blog together there are common threads that can help beginners overcome the perils of micropolitics; a tool kit of sorts. But in all honesty I don’t think it’s that easy. It’s a very contextual thing. It’s easy to give advice when you’re not in that situation, and you can only speak in hypotheticals about what should happen for those who don’t have the power or voice to influence others, and I’m loathe to do it. 

What’s the reality? While we’d all like to be Sally and fit into a potentially productive environment, many of us will start off as Millie. But it’s important to recognise that, and plan for change. We need to know when the time is right to find a bit of Louis in us, though, to advocate for growth. Upsetting the status quo narrative in a school is one of the hardest things anyone can do. But it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

comment avatar
About me
On Wednesday 15 July at 16:15 Lynn Burrows said

This blog post took me on a time machine ride back to my first teaching positions. My very first year I team taught in a situation where I didn't dare rock the boat. Being just out of college I was shocked at my first exposure to the "good ol' boy" attitude prevailing throughout the department, but somehow instinctively knew to survive socially I shouldn't rock the boat. Luckily for me, the next year I moved to an elementary school where I taught solo. This post hit on a common thread in education, whether we are dealing with students or colleagues, relationships are key and must be developed prior to expecting change. Although my knee jerk reaction would be one of go in to a new situation, make changes, take no prisoners, but alas I have found again from experiences (not so positive) this method tends to leave behind carnage, not change. When I am struggling to make a difference with a student, years of teaching have taught me I must first work on building a trusting relationship with the student. The same is true when trying to make changes in a system. My own experience leads me to believe when I have developed trusting relationships, I am more able to affect change. 

In order to add your comments, you must login or register as a member

You can login or register here