Straight Talking Staff Rooms
On a really good day, when there is no queue for the bathroom or the microwave, and no child from your class manages to injure themselves in the school yard, there is a 20 minute window to sit down and relax in a child-free environment of semi-calm. Well that’s the idea anyway.
Most teachers are very good at including everyone in the staff room conversation and making sure that new members of staff are not left out. This is lovely, but it can also be very stressful. From nothing more than an attempt to include you in conversation and to stay away from discussing pupils, the questions about your personal life start rolling in. And suddenly you find yourself negotiating a minefield of simple and innocent questions from lovely, friendly people who just want to get to know you better. They have no idea that you’re internally hyperventilating as you decide how best to answer each question. You don’t always want to spend your lunch break coming out to a group of people you’ve just met, including your principal and on occasion, the parish priest– sometimes you just want to eat your lunch.
For anyone who has ever experienced an oral language exam in a foreign language, you’ll understand what it feels like. You start to edit and change your personal history to suit the environment and to match the suitable language available to you.
These are some common options:
1) You avoid pronouns at every cost – You say “we” instead of “she”, and “their” instead of “her”. I’ve even found myself repeating “other half” or “better half” instead of partner or girlfriend.
2) When someone presumes you’re talking about a man, you just go along with it. “Yes, he’s great, never met a man quite like him before…….” Until they ask for a name and you either make one up or pretend to choke on your sandwich.
3) You can pretend you’re single when you aren’t. I hate this option, but I have used it and feel awful about it every time I do. I have this incredible partner who share my life and heart with, and here I am pretending she doesn’t exist. It feels like cheating. It also gives people the opportunity to play matchmaker. “You’re so right, I just haven’t met the right man yet… oh yes… I can’t WAIT for the Christmas party where you can set me up with the soccer coach. But I’m very picky; it will take some man to sweep me off my feet!”
4) You edit the names of bars/social groups/movies or just fake selective amnesia. Suddenly, you can’t quite remember the name of the bar you were in, or the name of the sports or social groups you meet up with – every week.
5) Take the pressure off by asking lots of questions instead of answering them. I turn into an over-eager chat show host or amateur psychologist, throwing questions left right and centre. And the more I get to know these lovely friendly people, the worse I feel. The longer I leave telling them about my life, the harder it gets.
Schools are more than just places of work, they are like an extension of your family and they profit from the bond between teachers and staff. But how can you develop a friendship with people when you can’t tell them about your relationships, your friendships, your dreams for the future, or which bar you were in last Saturday? If someone asks you about your weekend, you shouldn’t feel the need to edit out who you were with or where you went.
Everyone has the right to share as much or as little information about their personal lives as they wish. Sharing information about your life does leave you vulnerable to other people’s opinions. I can live with this. But coming out in a school leaves you exposed to far more than just opinion. I have enough support from friends, family and nowadays colleagues too, to protect myself from other people’s attitudes but no amount of love from them can shield me from this discriminatory law. And that makes me feel very isolated.
But I’m not alone in feeling this way. Once I made the decision to come out to staff, I soon realised that I’m not always the only teacher who feels the need to deflect questions or edit their answers. Some teachers who are single parents, unmarried parents, separated, divorced, have gay children, or are even LGBT themselves; also feel that staffroom conversations can be stressful. Outside work or in a one-to-one conversation, they rarely think twice about talking about themselves and take pride in their relationships and interests. But in a school environment they feel they risk being judged for failing to live up to the standard of “perfect primary school teacher”.
This was an eye opener for me. Here I was, making the same presumptions about other people’s personal lives and predicting their opinions when all the time, I’m not the only one counting down the minutes until the bell rings.