The kindness of strangers
Working from home these past two months has been much harder than I anticipated.
I’ve struggled to put my finger on precisely why. Is it the difficulty of establishing a work/life balance? Or the increased time I find myself sat in front of a computer screen?
While both of these have contributed to making my usual workday that little bit harder, I’d argue that it’s in fact the absence of my colleagues which has amplified the struggle.
While teaching can feel lonely at the best of times there was always the respite of having lunch together; a shared duty or free period; a chat after school or banter outside our classroom doors while the students filed in.
Those are now gone. Like breaths of fresh air, I took them for granted when they were in abundance. Now that they’re not, it’s all I want. That’s not to say I don’t hear from them at all – our days are punctuated by back-and-forth WhatsApp messages. And while these little pockets of air help sustain me to a degree, they’re no substitute for the deep breath of a post-work chat over a cup of tea.
‘There is no desert like living without friends. Friendship multiplies the good of life and divides the evil.’Balthasar Gracian, philosopher
Why should building good relationships with colleagues be a priority?
Pre-Covid I liked to wind up my colleagues by calling our relationship a ‘friendship of utility’. I’d tease them by saying that we only got along because we had to, and we pretended to like each other because it was of practical benefit to us all.
And like with all jokes, there was probably an element of truth to that.
Why then do I long after them? What exactly is it that I miss?
They provide a refuge against suffering
My mum once told me: a problem shared is a problem halved. She’s right about most things and she’s right here too. Whenever I was struggling it was always reassuring to hear that they were too. It can feel lonely in the classroom, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely job.
They provide guidance
I’ve lost track of the number of times my colleagues have come up with a solution to a problem I’d have never considered in a million years. Whether it be a strategy for managing behaviour or a new way to approach a topic, my teaching practice has only been enriched by the wisdom of those teaching around me.
They cancel out my defects
I’ve been rescued by my colleagues over the years. Literally saved on a few occasions from a rebellious class. Not to mention the last-minute lesson resources they’ve shared or the times they’ve helped me fill-in confusing paperwork. Many times they have taken on some of my marking burden without complaint. They picked up my slack when I couldn’t and I like to think that sometimes, although never really enough, I’ve been able to re-pay the favour in kind.
More than anything, my closest colleagues are a source of daily enjoyment. We joke around and make fun of each other. We gossip and we laugh a lot. When the job of teaching has felt stale, a few minutes of gentle buffoonery has often provided me with that much-needed shot of energy to get me over the finish line.
How can you begin to build these relationships in the first place?
As an inexperienced teacher, I was a big bag of neediness. Most new teachers are. In the beginning you take more than you can give which is not the best dynamic for establishing a fruitful mutual relationship with those you work with.
But that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer. If I had my time as a trainee again I would be more generous with my time and with my thanks. If I made a decent lesson resource, I’d share it just on the off chance they might want to use it. I’d do a better job of listening to what they were telling me and try not to feel quite so resentful when feedback was rushed. I’d work harder, even when I didn’t feel like it. I’d be more honest. I’d apologise when I was wrong.
Trust between strangers takes time to establish, but the process is sped up when we’re trying our best.
Once Covid is under control and schools re-open, it’s tempting to think that I’ll have nothing more to complain about once my colleagues and I are re-united.
Except I might. I have worked in my school for five years now and conventional wisdom suggests I should be looking to further my career in a new setting. Which is a challenge I’m up for, in theory.
But I hesitate at breaking the bonds I’ve formed over half a decade. No matter the polite promises we’ll make to one another I know the likelihood of us staying in touch is very slim. I’ve been burnt before, spending years in other workplaces with colleagues I’ve seen get married and whose children I’ve held.
And years later they rest peacefully on Facebook; a graveyard of individuals I once knew but from whom I have since drifted apart.
I’ll find new colleagues in the future, I’m sure. Knowing of their fundamental importance, I’ll make sure that I do.
But it doesn’t remove the sting of having to leave old ones behind.