The relationship of teachers in the workplace is an under-researched area. Educational psychologist Kairen Cullen discusses her study

In his British secondary school-based research of the 1970s, Andy Hargreaves drew attention to a little mentioned or understood aspect of schools. This was that ‘the social relationships of teachers form an important part of being a teacher…’ and also that ‘[their] impact upon the teacher constitutes one of the most significant gaps in our knowledge of the social processes within the school.’

Guidance, policy and legislation relating to most aspects of schools – school improvement, curriculum delivery, student achievement and behaviour – refers repeatedly to the phenomenon of teachers’ work and the involvement of other teachers However, within these references, teachers’ workplace relationships are simply assumed.

When I began my study in 1998, there was relatively little empirically based UK research on this area. I had to draw upon mainly anecdotal, professional practice literature and my own and colleagues’ experiences as teachers and educational psychologists (EPs).

I started with an initial scoping study. My aim was to find out from a wide range of individual teachers how they viewed the involvement of colleagues, and whether or not relationships featured. I also tried to ascertain what they considered to be the major influences upon teachers’ involvement with each other. Among the areas I explored were:

  • individual teachers’ qualities and characteristics
  • school structures and systems
  • government and the local authority (LA).

The social constructionist research framework that I used prioritises depth, understanding and authenticity. I wanted to explore a range of multiple perspectives from participants who shared the common experience of being a teacher, regardless of type of school or curriculum. This led me to draw my samples from primary, secondary and special schools.

It was difficult to access potential participants, even with the advantage of being able to utilise an ‘involved outsider’ researcher position, as an educational psychologist employed by the local authority. However, over the course of nine years, I carried out three semi-structured audio-taped interview studies.

Study one consisted of an sample of 37 class teachers and teacher managers from primary, secondary and special schools, all of whom were known to me in my practice as an educational psychologist. Especially rich data was gained from interviews with deputy heads in this phase. Also, I judged that deputies were likely to have a particular interest in the topic of teachers working together and to occupy a particularly good vantage point within their schools from which to form views.

Therefore study two used a random sample of 13 deputy headteachers from primary, secondary and special schools. The final study three used an opportunity sample of nine experienced, LA education staff working with a range of schools and agencies. I used non-school-based staff for the last study because I wanted to find out if findings might exist regardless of participants’ school specific situations.

Participants in the initial exploratory study thought that personal friendship and professional collegiality were not synonymous. They did, however, acknowledge this as one possible aspect of teachers’ involvement with each other, albeit not one which featured explicitly in their thinking about themselves as teachers.

Another clear finding was that teachers at all levels did not see relationships between teachers as being something which could be controlled, manipulated or framed as an aspect of school management strategy.

In study two, participants saw it as part of their jobs as deputy headteachers to facilitate relationships between teachers. They recognised the importance of and benefits to teachers, management and the whole school and they linked poor relationships with lack of staff wellbeing and rates of staff retention and sickness. Interestingly, they did not necessarily view good relationships with other teachers as an essential aspect of being a good teacher.

The final study with LA staff yielded the same strong general themes as the first two studies. However, there was relatively less reference to relationship, more emphasis on the role of management and upon the problematic. Greater reference was made to issues relating to conflict, politics and control. One other clear theme was that of the possible contribution that external agencies could make.

Problematic involvement

My study has highlighted the methodologically challenging, messy, important and problematic nature of teachers’ involvement in each others’ work. Some strong themes have emerged and central to these is the question of relationship and the twin issues of support and control. The ‘significant gap’ that Hargreaves highlighted over three decades ago appears to exist as much as ever. Possibly the time has come for teachers at all levels, and those who support them from local authorities and government, to explore and use this as a creative space within multiple and complex school realities.

Key findings

  • Relationships represent one aspect of teachers’ involvement with each other.
  • They do not appear to feature explicitly in teachers’ thinking about themselves as professionals.
  • Personal friendship and professional collegiality are not seen as synonymous.
  • They cannot be controlled, manipulated or made part of management strategy.
  • Good relationships with other teachers are an important, but not essential, aspect of being a good teacher.
  • Sometimes part of the deputy’s job is to facilitate relationships between teachers.
  • This brings recognised benefits to teachers, management and the whole school.
  • Poor relationships are linked to lack of staff wellbeing and rates of staff retention and sickness.