We educators need to make teachers' lounges less toxic

by David McGuire

I’ve probably spent countless hours in teachers’ lounges over the course of my career, and most of the time the experience leaves me drained and dispirited. After a grueling first half of the day, I feel the lounge should be a place of relaxation and rejuvenation for the second half of the day. The last thing a teacher wants is to walk into an environment where most of the conversation is negative.

The negative conversations that often happen in a teachers' lounge are not just harmful to the teachers, but also to the students and parents who are often discussed in a negative way. Students are labeled before teachers even get a chance to know them.

Let me lay down some ground rules for the teachers' lounge, which is similar to Vegas: “What is said in the teachers' lounge stays in the teachers' lounge.” Well, I am going to break that rule just a little, to offer you all a look inside. How do teachers really spend their 30 minutes of freedom away from the students, away from the administrators and away from the classroom?

Let me take you back to a day in the teachers’ lounge during my first year as a teacher. I was drained most days because we were trying to establish a new culture in a school in the midst of a takeover. The conversation usually began with a lighthearted review about what is going on in the news, a television sitcom or the outcome from last night’s game.

But when the conversation turned to the business of the school, the light-hearted banter disappeared. No one shared funny or motivating student stories. It was all about which student made which teacher upset. As I was listening I couldn’t help but think how quickly the conversation turned.

I felt myself getting upset, but then I thought, ‘Wait have I done this before? Have I been the teacher to turn the conversation from the score of the game to, ‘which student really got under my skin this morning?’” The frustration only heightened when a teacher walked in saying, “These kids here act like this is the zoo and not a school.”

I thought, really, did you just call these students animals? Yes, at times they can be a little energetic and hyper, but most middle school students are rambunctious. As one of the few Black teachers on a mostly white teaching staff, I’m thinking: “Wait did you just call our Black kids zoo animals?” I didn’t think the teacher was being racist, just insensitive.

Then we heard from the math teacher: “My second period really got on my nerves today. Some of the kids I wish would just be suspended for a couple days. It is always easier to teach when they aren’t in the room.”

As harsh as that sounded, I didn’t speak up. As a new teacher, you often just want to fit in. That’s really hard to do sometimes when you’re the only black man in the room, but holding my tongue only made me more upset.

Once they are finished with complaining about students they turn to Public Enemy #1, the school leaders. Every teacher in the lounge has their idea for their “grand vision” for the school. They felt the curriculum should be this way, and we should have staff meetings at this time, and this is how the master schedule should be.

Yet, it always seemed the ideas were focused on how to make their jobs a little easier and not ideas on how to improve things for the students we were serving. Of course, some ideas were reasonable, but I just felt the frustration was channeled in the wrong way instead of collectively coming up with a plan for improvement and presenting it to the administration.

Even as a new teacher, I knew we had more power than we thought. We were closer to our students and despite what we all experienced as “top-down directives,” we ultimately had the power to provide the best education for our students.

I left that day feeling both discouraged and optimistic. It was the first time I truly thought about the environment in the teachers' lounge and how sometimes it can be more draining than relaxing. The optimism kicked in once I realized what new knowledge I had discovered. Teachers had a prime opportunity to do something magical in those thirty minutes to help transform their teaching and the teaching of their colleagues.

One idea I had to transform the teachers' lounge to something more productive would be sentence starters. There could be sentence starters on the table to start the conversation. So each day there would be a new sentence starter about a different problem that we could discuss and find a solution. You could read about a typical scenario and the discussion in the lounge would be centered on that issue, with common classroom discipline issues a great place to start.

I regret that I was never able to get this off the ground in my first school, but I’m hoping it could take hold in my new school. The idea may face some resistance, but if done well (led by teachers and focused on teachers) it could provide for a motivating and energetic discussion each day during lunch.

Maybe that motivation will carry on the next day and the day after that, until finally the teachers' lounge is no longer a toxic place. 

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David McGuire

Mr. McGuire is a middle school teacher in Indianapolis, Teach Plus Policy Fellow, and currently enrolled in a doctoral program at Indiana State University for Educational Leadership. Driven by the lack of having an African American male teacher in his classrooms growing up, David helped launched the Educate ME Foundation, which is geared towards increasing the number of African American male teachers in the classroom. A born and raised Hoosier, he is dedicated to improving educational outcomes for all students in Indianapolis. He describes his educational beliefs as a reformer grounded in the best practices of traditional public schools, where he was mentored by strong leaders. David graduated from Central State University with a degree in English and also holds an MBA from Indiana Wesleyan University.