Ask any relief teacher what they find most daunting about the job, and you can guarantee navigating the staffroom at a new school will sit somewhere at the top. Walking into the most sacred of spaces for teachers can be extremely nerve wracking for a casual. It’s sort of like starting at a new school midway through the year when friendships have already been formed.
No matter how many times you have found yourself in this situation, chances are you will have similar thoughts running through your head. Is everyone staring at me? Will I be accepted? Am I silly for taking this sort of thing to heart at my age?
Of course, the catch 22 here is, going into the staffroom is one of your best opportunities to rub shoulders with other teachers and the school leadership team. Most people in leadership value relief teachers who can form friendly and professional relationships with other staff members and who mesh well with the social ethos and environment.
So, no matter how much courage it takes you to walk on into the staffroom, you should muster it because the networking benefits alone will make it worth your while. To help you prepare for any scenario, here are some staff room situations you might encounter and tips on how to handle them.
Breaking the ice
On your first day working at a new school, you’ll need to break the ice. When the time comes to grab a coffee, have lunch, or make your first trip into the staffroom for whatever reason you should do your best to make a good first impression.
Take time to gage the situation, make yourself a coffee (bring your own mug—more on that later), wash up a few dishes, and settle in. Is there a comfortable and available-looking seat that you can try out? Do you recognise any teachers in the staffroom that you can sit with? Has anyone made eye contact and returned your sheepish smile? Take the opportunity to introduce yourself as it arises, say how glad you are to be working at the school, discuss the class you have and what your plans are for the day. The sooner you break the ice, the more comfortable you’ll be.
Teachers have very little time during the day to chill out, talk about their weekends and share their frustrations with colleagues. Sometimes including a stranger (I.e.: the new casual), is not appealing for them.
Often permanent teaching staff are just as nervous to meet new people as the casual staff. Busy, full-time teachers have sometimes never been the casual relief in the staffroom or have been at the school so long they’ve forgotten what it feels like.
Over time, you will learn not to take the perceived indifference personally. If no-one responds to your polite attempts to engage them in conversation, thank goodness we live in a world where we can reach out to our friends at any time of the day – thank-you social media! If it makes you feel better, call or text someone to fill the time. Another option is to take a good book, or something you enjoy doing that will allow you to actually enjoy your very, very small lunch break.
One of the best lessons you will learn as a casual relief teacher is the importance of bringing your own mug. There’s nothing worse than looking for the most generic mug you can find only to have someone say “You are using so and so’s mug. She won’t be happy.” or even more humiliating: “You are using my mug”. The inadvertent use of someone’s favourite mug can set you off on the wrong foot with some staff members, as petty as this may seem.
Gaining the wrong sort of attention can further exacerbate the feelings of isolation and insignificance you may feel as a casual. Tea and coffee are not always provided, staff often put money in a tin to purchase supplies. Be ready to offer to pay towards the cost of these and initially bring your own. This will not only ensure you have access to tea and coffee but will also reassure staff that you are self-reliant and thoughtful. You might be thinking “seriously?”, but you won’t regret it.
Some schools are all about sharing the photocopier code, and some don’t even use them. But others do and if you are a casual, you can pretty much forget about access to a photocopier in schools like this. Your best bet, in the more controlled photocopy scenarios, may be to make nice with the office staff.
It can be extremely frustrating to be unable to access a photocopier or printer if you have not prepared anything else. Try to build a relief teaching bag of tricks which requires no worksheets at all. It is way less stressful for you, often more enjoyable for your students and the best part is you don’t have to worry about any marking. If you really do like to have certain worksheets, then it is highly recommended to print your own batch at home, so when you get to school you are prepared and ready to go.
Often, staff rooms do not comfortably accommodate all the staff in a school. It can be even more overwhelming, as a casual teacher, to walk into the staff room when there is clearly nowhere left to sit and the noise and banter of unfamiliar staff members fills the room. On these days, you may like to take your lunch to a sunny spot outside or even eat in the playground with the students. Use this as an opportunity to build rapport with students and the staff on duty.
As a replacement for a classroom teacher or other staff member you will usually be required to fulfil their rostered duties. Your duty should be communicated to you through whatever paperwork has been left or by the supervisor who welcomes you. If this isn’t the case, you can often find a playground roster in the staffroom. Just look for the name of the person you are replacing and be sure to turn up for duty in the designated area at the rostered time. Check with another teacher if you’re unsure on anything.
It isn’t unusual for staff to get caught up with unexpected emergencies and not remember to have their duty covered by someone else or, while on the run, stick their head into the staffroom and ask for someone to cover a duty. As a casual, you will be highly respected if you put your hand up to take this on. The best way to find acceptance in any working environment is to make yourself useful. Don’t forget your broad-brimmed hat. A whistle is also handy!
Some staffrooms are much easier to be in than others. A school’s culture is evident from their staffroom and the way they treat visitors and casual relief teachers. As a casual you must remember that this is not a reflection on you, it is a reflection on them. That being stated, you can improve your experience at any school by being prepared, friendly and willing to help. Even the toughest of staffrooms can be navigated with a little effort. And remember, the benefits of being a reliable and dynamic casual relief teacher, are that you don’t need to accept work at schools where, despite your best efforts, you feel unwelcome.