Take Back Your Teachers’ Lounge

Pssst…I think something at your school has a bad reputation. No, it’s not the cafeteria! It’s the teachers’ lounge. Have you ever heard teachers make statements against the teachers’ lounge? They say things like: I don’t eat lunch in the teachers’ lounge because I don’t want the negativity. Typically, I nod my head in agreement. How could I disagree? I don’t like it when people waste time complaining. In fact, I’m pretty sure my mentor teacher gave me this exact advice during student teaching: Stay out of the teachers’ lounge. Those people will drag you down. I took mental notes: Jerks in the teachers’ lounge. Never go there.

But what if the whole thing is a smear campaign against a would-be faithful friend? Think about everything the teachers’ lounge has to offer: A sanctuary to connect with other humans who love kids. A place to breathe. Grown up conversation. Four walls that are not inside your classroom. The teachers’ lounge actually sounds kind of awesome.

My thinking shifted during an ordinary conversation with a teacher friend this summer. She mentioned something about avoiding the teachers’ lounge, I nodded in agreement, and the conversation moved on to other things. But a little sadness crept in and started nagging at me. I thought to myself: This teacher is AWESOME. She has so much to share. Others could learn a lot from her. I started feeling sad to think about teacher leaders isolating themselves from places like the teachers’ lounge. What kinds of opportunities are we missing across the state? What good things could happen if we started connecting instead?

And then the revolutionary thought came: What if we take back the teachers’ lounge?

Before we go gangbusters, I have to pause and ask a silly question: Are there actually any horrible people in your teachers’ lounge anyways? I think the myth of negative people in the teachers’ lounge comes from movie/TV culture instead of real-life experiences. Perhaps this belief gives us an excuse to work through our short lunches guilt free. Connecting takes energy and time—two things that are scarce for Arizona teachers with overcrowded classrooms, low pay, and multiple jobs.

But let me ask you this: Even if you did find a negative person in your teachers’ lounge, would you have the courage to speak up and ask for more balanced conversation? I think that social climates are up to those participating in them. We have control, and we should step up as leaders.

Imagine you actually did find a negative person chilling in your teachers’ lounge and wanted to do something about it. I tend to lean on the strategies of Marshall Rosenberg and his approach called Nonviolent Communication to guide critical conversations. Nonviolent communication is about clearly stating requests without blame while taking responsibility for one’s own feelings. It sounds simple, but it’s very different than common language in the world. Rosenberg uses memorable imagery that contrasts a jackal (selfish, short-sighted, demanding, and judgmental) with a giraffe (big-hearted animal that can see far into the future). To communicate with compassion, Rosenberg suggests these steps: (1) Describe your observation, (2) State your feeling, (3) Explain the reason for your feeling in terms of your needs, and (4) State your request. For example: When we talk about frustrating things during lunch, I feel discouraged and exhausted. Could we switch gears and talk about positive things instead?  Practicing different ways to put these 4 steps into sentences is helpful when you first learn this style of communication, but the practice is worth it! Rosenberg has a few books, but there are plenty of web resources to dig deeper into his strategies.

Another tip to get negative people to switch gears comes from Cognitive Coaching. When people are “stuck” in a problem, they often just want to feel heard. Instead of sharing your own experiences with a similar problem (which extends the conversation and sometimes appears competitive), it can be helpful to simply paraphrase what is frustrating them and state what they appear to desire. For example: You feel frustrated when parents don’t follow parking lot procedures because it compromises safety—and you are looking for a way to make the parking lot safer. Putting these things into words for a person is a true gift. It allows their brains to process and move on, allowing the rest of the group to move on other topics as well.

So you’re feeling pretty confident now. You are most certainly going to take back your teachers’ lounge and soak up the glory of connecting with teammates for a few precious minutes every day. Could you change the world a little bit with those few minutes? I think yes. During your designated lunch time, you are considered an individual who is free to discuss any topics you like. You could discuss upcoming legislation, recent school board meetings, or information you’ve researched about different political candidates. Sure, it’s important to be respectful of others and these conversations may not be possible for every group of people, but what if they were? What if we could work together to stay informed in a positive climate? I think we could do more than take back the teachers’ lounge. I think we could take back the state of Arizona, finding our voice to advocate for best practices and adequate funding for Arizona kids.

What are your experiences in the teachers’ lounge? Do you have any suggestions about how to spend lunch time with colleagues?

Image credit: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/man-woman-question-mark-problems-2814937/

 

Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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