Secrets for Secondary School Teachers: How to Succeed in Your First Year (2004)

Chapter 9. Eating Lunch

There are usually several choices in a school of where to eat lunch, and the decision is not merely one related to ingesting food. Lunch period is when a lot of informal networking goes on, when friends are made, when gossip and information are traded, when political alliances are formed, and even when mentoring takes place. It is a time to debrief and support one another. It is also about the only time during the hectic day in which you can talk to adults about what is going on in your life.

CHOICES, CHOICES

Although you could elect to use your lunch period to catch up on work or simply recover in solitude from the morning’s stress, we strongly recommend that as a newcomer to the school community, you use all available opportunities to forge new relationships. For that reason, it might even be a good idea for you to experiment with as many different lunch settings as you can, making the rounds, so to speak, before you eventually settle on a routine place.

Your decision about where to eat lunch will depend on several factors: the cuisine available and whether it suits your taste and budget, whether the setting is a comfortable environment for you, and most important, who is in attendance and how they treat you. Some groups may virtually ignore you or even act somewhat put off that you are attempting to join a relatively intact culture. Other groups may be somewhat cautious and suspicious, watching you carefully to see if you are “their kind of person” in terms of basic values and personality. Trust us, though, somewhere around the school are other individuals and groups that would be utterly delighted to have you join them. You just have to take the time to investigate what options are available.

The most obvious place to eat is in the teachers’ dining room. This is usually adjacent to the school cafeteria. Often, there is a menu tailored to adult tastes. In some schools, most teachers gather there, whether they have brought lunches or not.

In newer schools, each department may have a workroom that attracts the faculty from that subject area. In other schools, there are various workrooms or lounges spaced throughout the building(s), where teachers gather.

At one school, I (Ellen) found a group of teachers who identified themselves as the “upstairs lunch bunch.” This was a mixed group of people from different departments who met in a spacious workroom. Word of mouth brought people to the location, as it was a lively group. There were microwaves to use if you brought a lunch; otherwise, you could walk to the cafeteria to buy food and bring it upstairs. It was far from my classroom but worth the walk for the spirited conversations that took place.

Most schools will have a group that likes to discuss politics. Others like to play games, like Trivial Pursuit. Some have televisions going for the news or soap operas.

As must be readily apparent, teachers group themselves together during lunch according to a number of variables: the geographic proximity of their rooms, their ages (older and younger), their political opinions or lifestyles, their teaching specialties, or their physical or social attractiveness, to mention just a few. You will find it fascinating research just to observe the various groups in action and try to figure out what binds them together.

Things also become complicated when you have multiple interests and roles in the school. If you coach a sport but do not teach physical education classes, you have to decide whether to eat with the coaches, your department, or a group of people you see as potential friends.

From time to time, you may enjoy eating lunch with the students. Visit the cafeteria. Sit down with a group. Or invite them to bring their lunches to your room. You’ll have a chance to talk to them informally. Let them lead the conversation. Let them ask you questions. Learn about their worlds by listening rather than controlling the conversation. Sometimes, they might even forget you are a teacher, or even an adult, and a whole new world will open up before your eyes and ears in which you will really get a feeling for what it’s like to be a teenager again.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE DECISION

Regardless of the place you choose, you will want to consider carefully the consequences of your decision. Some groups are notorious for the complaining and whining that goes on. It can be very depressing to hear adults berate the students and their parents day in and day out. Some people can be quite cynical about the state of education and the teaching profession. Each and every lunch period is spent taking turns complaining about how awful things are in the school, how unmotivated and unruly the kids are today, and how nonsupportive the administration is. Then, particular staff members are selected as a focus for bash and gossip. Even if some of the complaints and criticisms are true, a new teacher does not need to be subjected to such negative energy in the middle of the day. Furthermore, such teachers will not want to have someone like you around who is upbeat and enthusiastic; their atmosphere thrives on pessimism.

In other lunch groups, strategic planning takes place. Science teachers plan a field trip. Two teachers plan an interdisciplinary unit: The American History teacher will begin a unit on the Great Depression when the junior English teacher assigns The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Teachers brainstorm new ideas, share techniques that work, and take pride in their successes. They exchange ideas on classroom management and discipline or even compare notes about what works with some students who are particularly tough to handle. These are high-energy, motivated teachers who keep students’ best interests in mind. Such teachers will welcome a new addition; their atmosphere thrives on optimism.

Some lunch groups develop a norm in which any school-related conversation is prohibited. These teachers prefer to talk instead about their personal lives, their families and friends, social and political events, books and movies, and/or community activities. Such individuals prefer to get away from school for a little while; they want to get to know one another, not as teachers but as human beings.

Every school will have its own options available, not only centered around larger groups but also smaller arrangements of two and three teachers who get together. As much as you will feel the attraction to settle down by yourself or with another new teacher you have befriended, force yourself to reach out to others. Even if you later decide you’d rather eat alone or with one friend, you will at least have circulated enough within the school to meet the faculty and staff and know what options are available.

FINAL ADVICE

Wherever you eat lunch, don’t try to grade papers or take care of other paperwork. Many teachers unions worked very hard to get a “duty free” lunch, and you may be reproached by colleagues, some gently and some not so gently, if you bring papers to work on or even mail to read during lunch.

You must build into your day some structures that will keep you mentally alert and physically nourished. There are few jobs as exhausting as that of a high school teacher, and the lunch period provides a critical time for you to replenish your energy, both nutritionally and emotionally, before you once again jump back into the fray.