Ajarn.com is an incredible resource for teachers: these awesome blogs, reads from Ajarn's interesting guests, a useful cost of living guide, insights into destinations around Thailand, guidelines for work permits and health cover, and of course there are all those jobs! Let the rest of the world loll in double digit unemployment, we have jobs on Ajarn!
But all that job choice can be somewhat overwhelming, right? Wouldn't it be cool if there was the kind of star-rating system we have on Trip Advisor or Lineman. This is a 5-star school. That's a 2-star – wouldn't recommend.
You can't really tell much about a school by reading the job posting. You have to go in to the school and check it out. And when you arrive, what do you check?
In many ways, schools are pretty much the same – classrooms, children, (white)boards. However, there are a number of features differentiating schools that would interest a teacher: the number of students in a class, air-conditioners in the rooms, the amount of natural light in the rooms, a library, a computer centre, resources like flashcards, a photocopy machine. These are all indicators of how well-funded the school is, and how much has been invested in the students' learning, but unfortunately they don't really tell us about the school's attitude towards their teachers.
For this, there is one really useful indicator – the teacher's staffroom. Often seen as only marginally interesting, the staffroom is actually a great litmus test for the health of a school's relationship between the teachers and the administration.
A case against the staffroom
Those who tally things like profit, square meters, number of students, and student-teacher ratios see a teachers' room as a luxury. It's dead territory that can be better put to use as another classroom or as facilities for the learners. The room is also a major expense: air-conditioners running all day, even when it's empty.
There's a second reason to scorn the staffroom: they are sites of chaos and agitation. Teachers leave school resources scattered around them like a children's playpen – and at least with the playpen you can tell the kids to clean it up. Worse, teachers hide in this room, shirking their responsibilities, idling away the day, gathering together to grumble and complain. The entire concept of a staffroom is an exercise in wasting money and time.
Arguments like these are held by people with decision making power in a school. So, in some schools there are no staffrooms at all, or otherwise it's a small utilitarian shared workspace, designed to be uncomfortable. Alternatively, because teachers can't be trusted, a key management member presides, tasked with minimizing subversion, monitoring time seepage, and whipping slackers into shape.
In defense of staffrooms
The defense of the staffroom rests on the weighty questions of teacher reflection and collaboration.
In their classrooms, teachers are isolated from one another and rely on personal intuitions or experience to find their way through daily teaching challenges. The staffroom provides a space where teachers can get together to share common concerns, trade ideas and materials, and develop a professional learning community. When teachers are part of a professional community, they do better.
Moreover, or possibly more importantly, spending large swathes of time with students can get stressful. Having a private place to shelter from the day serves to calm tattered sanity.
When you walk into a staffroom in a strange school, the buzz of chatter among teachers is an indicator of a properly functioning teaching team. Let's look at a few examples of a how this professional shared space might work:
Ben and homework
Ben is a new teacher, and is still finding his way around the school and its idiosyncratic culture. He walks into the staffroom and asks Pat 'What do we do with students who don't do their homework'. Pat says the school requires a letter to go to the parents, but that she has found that she gets better response from the kids if they are told to go out of the room to do it while the rest of the class plays a game. They hate that. Bob, who is listening in, says he tried that, but his co-teacher didn't like it. He tells Ben that what he does is...
Pat and the 5/7s
Pat has had a terrible lesson with the 5/7s. They are usually a tough group but today they were particularly belligerent. She is rattled and upset. As she walks into the staffroom, Joan asks what happened. Pat tells her about an incident with Poom, the ringleader of the thugs in that room, and how she handled it. While Joan is listening, Bob (who is listening in), suggests Pat go and speak to the director. Joan disagrees and suggests that Pat sets up a class contract...
Bob and the third conditional
Bob is late – traffic, again. In the staffroom, he looks at his schedule and sees that he has the 6/1s. They are a strong group. They are doing the third conditional, and while Bob has something for this, he also knows that the 6/1s are going to gobble it up in no time. He asks everyone who is sitting about if they have anything he could use. Harry says he has a great board game on regrets and reaches over for his file to find a copy of it. Pat, who sits next to Bob, tells him about an activity called a dictogloss that works with any grammar structure. She explains that you take a text with the grammar structure in it...
The functioning staffroom
Staffrooms are not idle space which could be better used in other ways. Teachers, when put together, are incredibly productive (in between coffees and collegial banter, of course). It's in the staffroom that teachers grow their own skills, expand the range of the school curriculum, coordinate their efforts, and construct a coherent school culture.
School administrators (who don't teach) are not aware of the power of a good staffroom. They will not understand how beneficial this oasis is for teachers, and that the cost of running a staffroom are in fact an investment in the students' learning.
So, when you arrive at your prospective school, you'll see walls and classes and children, and perhaps a library, possibly a photocopier, hopefully air-conditioners in the classrooms. But ask to see the staffroom.
Take a busy, noisy and personalized area to be a positive sign. If there isn't one, ask why, and consider how the school offers teachers the opportunity to share, interact, and build a community together.
Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TEFL Course in Bangkok.