Communities across the nation are searching for an answer to the same question: How do we improve the academic performance and behavior of our public school students? Nationally many ideas are on the table ranging from the relatively mundane, such as requiring that students learn formal note-taking skills, to the more esoteric, such as re-titling teachers as “educational facilitators”. Some ideas cost pennies; some cost many thousands of pennies. However, all ideas, whatever they may be, have one thing in common: an increasingly desperate search for something that will work in these times of desperately decreasing school budgets. How about considering a suggestion that won’t cost a penny, takes advantage of something all of us do anyway, is firmly grounded both in educational research and pure common sense, and offers the opportunity to improve both academic performance and classroom behavior?
Here it is: Let’s encourage teachers to eat in the school cafeteria with their students as many days of the week as possible. We already see the benefits of the mentoring that takes place through extra-curricular activities, but not all students and teachers participate in sports or club activities. Therefore, why not bring more teachers and more students together during the one unstructured time slot in a very structured day to share and grow from one another’s thoughts and insights?
There are, of course, a variety of reasons that teachers gravitate toward the Faculty Lounge at lunchtime. For some it is a chance to bond with colleagues; for others it is an opportunity to squeeze in some more work time between bites; for more than a few it is a welcome moment of quiet in a busy work day.
However, research has consistently shown the advantages of positive student-teacher relationships in terms of promoting improved student outcomes. Also, it doesn’t require a PhD in Educational Psychology to realize that students will work harder and behave better if they like and respect their teachers. Indeed, this is a finding that cuts across professional boundaries: police officers who build relationships with the communities they serve are better able to fight crime, doctors who spend the time to get to know their patients are better able to treat them, and politicians who regularly and informally meet their constituents better understand their needs.
Why then, should we not encourage students and teachers to share a meal during the middle of the school day?
I am not, by the way, suggesting that teachers should be required to eat lunch in the school cafeteria each day: sometimes a sojourn to the isolation afforded by the Faculty Lounge is much needed; likewise, I am equally resolute that it should be entirely up to students whether to join in at a table with their teachers. Everybody may need their own space on a particular day for any variety of perfectly understandable reasons. Moreover, teachers should be encouraged to eat with their students—not required by a contractual clause. No one is going to reap any rewards if we turn lunchtime into yet another duty to check off—or activity to be evaluated by administration—in the midst a busy day. Individual choice must be respected.
Nonetheless, promoting friendly and informal interaction between teachers and students that does not involve a grade for anyone is well worth the little effort it would involve. If the cafeteria is simply too noisy for some, we could also encourage teachers to invite students to take their lunch trays up to their classrooms for some quiet and mutually enjoyable conversation. I well remember my own English teacher my senior year of high school and his magical classroom coffee pot during the lunch hour. A group of us went up to his room at least once a week to drink his cinnamon-scented brew and talk about whatever was on our minds. I’m certain none of us was harmed in any way by the experience; in fact, I’m darned sure that all of us—teacher and students alike—learned a great deal from the conversation that took place between sips of coffee.
Mark this down as an uncomplicated suggestion that may offer comprehensive benefits and won’t cost a thin dime or additional minute of anyone’s time—a pretty good endorsement for any idea to improve the quality of our schools.