Tom Starkey: teamwork

  • Tom Starkey: teamwork

“like an elbow-padded Bear Grylls (but with infinitely better taste in beverages)...”

You may like to think of yourself as a solo operator, says Tom Starkey – but it’s teamwork that’s got you where you are, and don’t you forget it…

Apart from those strange, stain-ridden small people who invade your space by asking you questions and generally getting in the way, you’re pretty much alone in the classroom. And most of the time, that’s how I like it. No open door policy on my watch; people might come in and then I’d have to smile and pretend to be normal.

Even outside of the sacred ground of wall displays and drywipe, I like to think of myself as somewhat of a lone-wolf, a maverick, a bastion of educational self-sufficiency (although I have heard ‘crazed loner’ bandied around the cafeteria). There are reasons behind this. It allows you to steer clear of herd panic when the SMT announces another layer to its triple-double-multiball cross-school marking strategy. And it means you have to give less to charity as teachers love hitting you up for a few quid for whatever ‘zany’ activity they’re taking part in that week (‘Sponsored Lama Wrangling for Athlete’s Foot’; ‘Chainshaw Juggling to Stop Oppression’ etc).

So, like an elbow-padded Bear Grylls (but with infinitely better taste in beverages) I convince myself of my rugged individualism; that I walk alone, crafting awesome lessons from nothing more than a few pencil shavings and an old, mildew-sodden tie.

This romantic delusion has been consistently shattered on occasions innumerable, however, as I have run, panic-stricken to a member of whatever department I am part of at the time to clarify something so painfully obvious to the rest of the team that they assume I must be pulling their leg. Then they realise I’m not and that’s when they start patting me on my head with a pitiful look saved only for the terminally gormless.

For as much as I like to portray myself as a lone gun, I am only the teacher I am today thanks to the teams that I have been part of. In the classroom we’re on our own but then there are the offices and the staff rooms where shared purpose reigns supreme. If you’re lucky, there’s professionalism, support, camaraderie and illicit coffee from the un-PAT tested machine that’s been smuggled in and which is always bubbling away in the corner. There are people to bounce ideas off, to ask for a bit of back-up in a class when things go awry, who’ll give moral and intellectual support and (probably most importantly) make you laugh when there seems to be very little humour in a situation. Being part of a good team can make a teacher’s life so much easier as it can protect and insulate you from many of the hardships that you may face.

Some of the best teams I’ve been in have been in some truly challenging schools. Small platoons who strive to do the best for those in their charge even if it seems as if this is a fool’s errand. The strength of the unit goes a long way in leading to good practice and fighting against the tide of behaviour issues and extremely dodgy management decisions. Being part of something like that can be a truly galvanising experience and the bonds forged between practitioners are like little else.

However, the opposite is also true. Working in a team that doesn’t have that cohesion, where pettiness and arguments are rife and mutual support is not forthcoming can be even worse than going it alone. What is already a difficult job can be made impossible by back-biting, nonchalance and mistrust. Sometimes it’s a clash of personalities, sometimes it’s due to massive pressure from above but it always means serious trouble. If you’re unfortunate to be in that position it might be an idea to consider an exit strategy as in my experience people rarely change and waiting for them or the situation to do so can prove pointless.

The importance of relationships with those you work with is critical, and although I like to think so sometimes, no teacher is an island. Thank your lucky stars if you’re in a good team. It’s great being in the position where the people you work with lift you up and you do the same to them. The support of your peers is what allows you to be better (at least it has in my case) - and no amount of messing around with twigs and smelly old ties is going to change that.