Teacher’s Corner: Lessons from the Lunchroom (1/25/16)

I suspect that many of you feel as I do about lunchtime. On most days, the 15 or 20 minutes spent refueling may be the only time when student voices are absent. It is a calm, relaxing period that provides an opportunity to converse with other faculty about items not related to school. I certainly find comfort and relief in the short time spent with colleagues, and it is clear that my students share enjoyment with their friends as well.    

Although students may not realize it, the lunchroom is the place to observe the overall social dynamic of a population of students. Other than self-selected grouping in the classroom or the occasional recess games, lunchtime is the only regularly scheduled time when students have free reign of who they interact with.

I recently had the opportunity to witness the lunchtime activity of my students, and I’d like to report on some of my observations from the shadows. I could certainly spend the rest of this column on healthy food choices, or for that matter unhealthy ones, but that is a topic for another day!  

With just about every seat occupied, the cafeteria was loud and filled with the scent of greasy food. There was a table of quiet boys and girls in one corner, with young adult novels displayed prominently next to bags of chips and cartons of milk. To my left, a group of boys talked loudly and as another approached, I heard the dreaded, “seat taken.” This was followed by an airborne French fry that came down to the floor inches from a table of girls who were in the midst of a heated discussion. I looked over but could not determine the exact source of the projectile. Perhaps it came from the other table, the long kind with attached “stools” that was filled with every student I have ever given a behavior slip to.  There was the peanut-free table, where those with allergies could sit in safety. It was nice to see others sitting with them too. As I surveyed the entire setting I saw a few lunch trades, students eating purchased food even though a sandwich was clearly packed for them. Some tables were neat and clean, others a mess. One student, upon arriving at a table with a plate of fries, found a mass of fingers grabbing from all directions. I let it be, as sometimes it is good to let the students work it out. He did. I saw and heard laughter, witnessed a few pats on the back, noticed some scowling, and through a host of audible “thank yous” and “you’re welcomes,” felt pretty good about returning to class with this population.   

When the bell rang, most of the students cleaned the entire mess. Others helped out in cleaning up what was left behind. I enjoyed my field work that day. I realized that many of the life lessons we try to instill in our students—politeness, respect, sharing, self-efficacy, enjoyment in life, and respecting the differences in others—can, indeed, be addressed in the lunchroom. I’m grateful that for the most part there are only minor disruptions due to behavior, but I know that each school brings with it a different situation and environment, for the size and attitude of the population determines the dynamic of lunchtime. I have tried in recent weeks to address a few of these issues in class. Sometimes, all that is needed to enact change is the recognition of what was seen by someone outside of the group.  

There are some great resources dealing with lunchtime dynamics and activity planning out there. Education World has detailed tips for improving behavior in the lunchroom. Teaching Tolerance has developed a program called Mix It Up, which offers the chance for different groups and personalities to interact during lunch. They offer a host of resources and ideas on their website. Additionally, The Journal of Thought has a wonderful article dealing with the dynamics of a high school cafeteria.   

Sure, time spent supervising lunch may take away the only short break in the day, but the benefits of discovering the milieu our students inhabit help solidify the connections we have with them on a daily basis. I hope that the next time you head off to the faculty lunchroom, take a moment to think of the students in their lunchroom, where true colors are seen.