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Notes From The Snake Pit

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During my first five years of teaching, I shunned the teachers' lounge. I'd always heard that faculty rooms were snake pits where poisonous gossip spreads. I chose to eat my lunch, instead, with a colleague in her room or mine.

But at my current school, I've taken to hanging out in the faculty room, largely because my classroom is right next door and the copy machine and refrigerator are there. As a result, I've come to see the lounge as a place where my colleagues and I continue our educations, both as teachers and as human beings.

Not everyone at the school feels that way, though. This past spring, I overheard a colleague complaining to the principal that the faculty room was such a "negative place'' that she avoided it altogether. Since I spend a great deal of time there, I wondered if I was part of that negativity. Or was my colleague simply having a bad day, as she did so often that semester? I decided to pay attention to the time I spent in the faculty lounge during an average day and to take note of what I said, saw, and heard there.

As usual, I arrive before everyone but the secretary and make coffee. It's become a sort of ritual: I make the morning coffee and Marge, our resource room teacher, cleans out the pot before she leaves in the afternoon.

Soon, a few other teachers wander in to use the copy machine, put away lunches, go to the bathroom, or sit with a cup of fresh coffee for a few minutes before the real day begins. Stan, the biology teacher, exhibits his latest scrimshaw carvings, while several of us English teachers read the daily bulletin together, looking for amusing typos and seeing what kind of interruptions we can expect.

Then, it's time to teach.

During my prep period, I sit in the lounge and talk with Matt, the young history teacher. Most days we talk politics, but occasionally our conversation drifts to anything from the Bible to mail-order diplomas.

At lunchtime, everyone takes a seat at his or her favorite table. At my table, we debate the merits of a proposed new reading curriculum, while at the table nearest ours, they're talking about the coach who was thrown out of a baseball game on Saturday. At the third table, the garrulous agriculture teacher is holding forth about several students' pigs; they are over the weight limit for the upcoming livestock show and have to go on a diet.

Back at our table, talk segues briefly to a senior who has been written up by nearly every teacher this week; we agree that the seniors in general are a self-involved lot this year. There follows some general complaining about the principal. One teacher does his imitation of the vice principal, and everyone laughs. Encouraged, he tells one of his offensive jokes, this one sexist and slightly racist. This particular teacher is the most politically incorrect person I know, and he delights in it. No one laughs at the joke.

After school, I sit in the lounge with Marge for a few minutes. We discuss a couple of the senior girls who are suddenly quite noticeably pregnant and another who, even at this late date, stubbornly (and erroneously) believes she has enough credits to graduate.

That's about the extent of it. Some days are more "negative'' perhaps, but, in the big scheme of things, probably no more negative than the talk in the break room at the local Denny's restaurant.

We occasionally make fun of students and describe them in unflattering ways, the same sort of ways we've all heard them describe us, their teachers. We laugh about 20-year-old seniors (yes, we have some) and how long it takes some juniors to read a book because they're such poor readers. It's not a pretty picture, I guess. But in the talk, there's also a certain affection and fondness for the students.

In every workplace I've ever seen, employees make fun of their employers and clients, even as they faithfully perform their duties. But for some reason, people expect this not to happen in schools. Teachers are expected to bury their sarcasm and frustration--even in private among other teachers, who understand best the tensions and stress of the job. Few other occupations are held to such rigorous and noble standards.

I suppose you could say that just because everyone else does it doesn't make it right, but I think in this case it does. Quite simply, the faculty room is a decompression chamber where the day's events, emotions, failures, and interruptions gain perspective. It's a place where everyone speaks the same language and everyone has faced the same fears, where small successes mean something and private griefs are easily concealed.

Sure the "bad boy'' is there and the hyperactive pest, the goody-two-shoes and the tattletale. But in faculty rooms, I've also learned how the stock market works, how to convert fractions to decimals, and where the best huckleberries grow. During lunch one day, a group of us dreamed up the idea of taking the entire junior class to see Schindler's List and were actually able to make it happen.

At many schools, the faculty room is the only place where teachers can talk to other teachers without an agenda. It is there that I've learned about effective disciplinary methods, grading shortcuts, and ways to reduce paperwork--tricks that make my classroom life easier. It is also where I learn which kids are having trouble with their parents, drugs, or the law. But most important, the teachers' lounge is where I have learned to trust my intuition and not be afraid of laughing at myself.

Yes, I occasionally laugh at my students, too. They do strange and senseless things sometimes, just as they also do sweet and wonderful things. Teachers laugh at administrators and school board members, janitors and counselors--all are fair game.

Don't you know, we all are.

--Cody Walke

The author is an English teacher at White Swan (Wash.) High School.

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