There’s a rule of thumb that new teachers are supposed to follow. Simply put: Stay away from the teachers’ lunchroom.
In that den of horrors, the theory goes, sit experienced – and often burnt-out – educators talking smack about their colleagues, especially in other grades and on other teams. There are teachers fighting with others for dominance (it’s always hard to give up being in charge even when teachers leave the classroom behind), so that a new teacher doesn’t know where to turn. There are countless stories being told about students and parents that can make a new teacher’s head spin about, Exorcist-like: Could these stories possibly be real? For even if some of these things have already happened to them, these newbies, it’s easy to slough them off as aberrations – until the jokes and laughter and frustration exchanged in the teachers’ room prove otherwise.
Over my first few years as a new teacher, I experienced all of the above – and none of the above. And then, of course, as the years went by, I became one of the storytellers.
Working in a school is completely different than working anywhere else, of course, but especially different from places whose employees are not on rigid schedules. You lunch with the people who have your same period off – simple as that. It doesn’t matter if your very best friend is in another grade, or if you are a related arts teacher and she is a social studies teacher: Never the twain shall meet.
Oh, and that misnomer of a lunch “hour”? A teacher’s lunch “hour” is 25 to 30 minutes, if we’re lucky – which we were for many years. Newbie or not, it was expected that we would congregate in that lunchroom. In fact, the head of our union happened to be in my grade, and she would search us out if we didn’t head down by 11:55 a.m. (or out of the building, if we could move quickly enough, which was never worth it to me), reminding us in no uncertain terms that the union had fought for this dedicated time off, and if we stayed in our rooms to continue to do work, we were proving that we didn’t need it, and thus, eventually, would lose it.
But as it happened, those 25 minutes in the lunchroom were golden. There was sometimes howling laughter, and shared moments from our personal lives, and crazy stories from the classroom as we would one-up each other with the insanity that was the teaching life.
Over the last five or six years, when the demands of the curriculum got more overwhelming, the lunchroom became a thing of the past, unless we had a Teacher Appreciation lunch, or when our schedules changed for testing and we needed out of our classrooms after having paced through them for hours. Once in a while, when the weather was especially nice, we would sit at picnic tables outside, but it didn’t happen that often.
Of course, the lunchroom wasn’t the only place where we developed relationships as colleagues.
It was sitting over planning documents and constructing lesson plans together – or sending a week’s or unit’s worth of plans to a colleague who was new or drowning or both.
It was standing in the hall during duty, sharing the insanity that had happened within your classroom walls to another adult, who might have an equally insane story to share on a different day.
It was helping a colleague who was going through a tough time by working out a coverage schedule on our own, asking the administrators only for their blessings to help us make it work – making it through the death of a parent, or a sibling, or another colleague, or a beloved pet.
It was being one of the first people in every morning (never me), or one of the last there every afternoon or evening (often me), so that you had someone for those few minutes to talk to when you roused yourself from whatever was so pressing in your classroom. It was taking the long walk to the office (in my case, from the farthest regions of the new wing) and bringing back the annual homemade scones or pretzels with cheese sauce or mini-brownie cupcakes to a friend – or not bringing them back when you knew that friend really didn’t want them.
It was sharing experiences with students whom you felt you knew better, sometimes, than their parents – and sometimes saw in very different lights than each other, depending on who was in that class, the students’ friends or enemies, the dynamics of the group. And it was trying to figure out a plan, a way to connect with that kid, a way to make it better – or, with those tough ones, to bolster each other up when, quite truthfully, we just felt like giving up.
There were problems along the way, of course – and often, especially, when there was a lengthy time between the Presidents’ Day weekend and spring break, or when the school year just did not feel like it was ever going to end. It was annoyance at the math placement test that took away from the other subjects’ time (like mine), and why did they have to do it this way EVERY SINGLE YEAR? It was trying to agree when were we going to give out yearbooks so that the kids didn’t throw in the towel too soon. It was too much living too close, and sometimes, there were words. And sometimes, those colleagues became strangers in the hall, with no camaraderie at all.
But mostly, it was a good group, the group I was with for about a quarter of my life. And within that group, I found two of my dearest friends, and they found me. How lucky I was!
Ever since distance learning began and I watched my friends and colleagues battle it out online, trying to draw in the missing and the mute, I have been celebrating quietly. You picked the perfect time to get out, they all say, my former colleagues and friends, and I surely agree.
And yet, perversely, I miss the camaraderie of the group text thread, and the private Zoom meetings after the administrators leave, and the tee shirt that declares We’re all in this together, with the names of every staff member in the giant CTB in the middle.
As Dorothy said to the Scarecrow, in her final goodbye before leaving Oz: “I think I’m going to miss you most of all.”
So, yes, I miss my friends and colleagues.
And that lunchroom.