Commentary | Education

Lessons—Recognizing the Secret Value of Lunchroom Duty

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Recognizing the Secret Value of Lunchroom Duty

By Richard Rothstein

For years, New York City teachers patrolled lunchrooms – keeping order and, when things were calm, chatting with students.

Many teachers objected to this duty, not only because they felt the role of security guard was incompatible with their focus on instruction, but also because some principals gave patrol duty to teachers as a way to punish those who were out of favor. In 1996, the city and teachers union agreed to revoke the right of principals to make such assignments, unless 75 percent of a school’s teachers voted to agree.

Aides who now supervise lunch do not have the authority or more sophisticated disciplinary skills of teachers. So the city wants to restore principals’ right to assign teachers to patrol. This will not be the biggest barrier to a new union contract, but bargaining about it shows how far New York must go to finance a truly adequate education.

It is costly to assign teachers to lunchroom supervision. They should not patrol during their own lunch breaks, or during their planning and preparation periods – teachers need that time to read student papers and to plan lessons. If anything, common planning time should be expanded so that teachers can compare student work, develop joint lessons and learn from observing other classrooms.

If teachers patrol in addition to their own lunch and planning times, a school must then either make teacher time available by enlarging classes, or it must add other teachers to serve as classroom replacements. In elementary schools, art, music, science, physical education or other specialists can instruct when regular teachers are not in class.

In some parts of the country, that is how it is done. Teachers who join students at lunch gain important behavioral and personal insights that aid instruction of their students.

In West Elementary School in Storm Lake, Iowa, 11 regular classrooms house 225 pupils. Each grade’s teachers have a common daily planning period when classes are taught by art, music, or physical education specialists. Teachers join their pupils at lunch and then have a lunch period of their own while children are at recess. Aides supervise the recess, but not lunch.

Half of West Elementary’s parents are immigrants, mostly working in Iowa’s meatpacking industry. Barriers to children’s learning are often revealed at the lunch table.

Kathy Bowman, a kindergarten teacher, said that lunchroom chatter gave her hints about which children did not have adults caring for them after school or any books at home. Mrs. Bowman has used this information to arrange for retirees to visit and read to children, in Spanish and English, after school.

Another teacher recently heard a boy say at lunch that an older brother threatened him with a gun. Juli Kwikkel, the principal, notified the police and called the packing plant to have the boy’s mother released for a conference.

Mrs. Kwikkel convenes regular meetings at which a teacher, classroom aide, psychologist and counselor review each pupil’s academic progress and the personal problems that may impede it. The meetings draw on insights gained at lunch tables. A child who is reticent in class may reveal at lunch a special interest around which a more exciting lesson can be built. Mrs. Kwikkel says that in the informal lunch setting, teachers seem more approachable and children are more likely to confide in them.

New York’s Board of Education may hope to create such an environment, but it cannot do so simply by authorizing principals to have a few teachers supervise poorly trained aides in crowded cafeterias. While Iowa schools spend less for students on average than New York – mostly because it costs less to hire qualified teachers in Iowa – the Storm Lake approach is expensive. It requires smaller schools with calm lunchrooms where adult-child conversation can occur. It also ensures that lunch duty does not compete with more important responsibilites, like teachers’ joint curriculum planning.

Some compromise in New York on this issue is warranted. Now, schools get extra money to hire lunch aides. An agreement to put some teachers back in cafeterias can work only if this money is increased, because it costs more to replace teachers in classrooms than to hire aides.

And if dollars are found to release only a few teachers for such duty, better trained – and, thus, better paid – aides are needed, especially in secondary schools where discipline is more difficult. There will also have to be continued assurance that teacher assignments will not be made capriciously. Lowering the vote margin by which a school’s teachers must approve such an arrangement would offer some flexibility.

Bargaining about lunchrooms in New York has evoked an Iowa-like image of schools where children and adults comprise an informal learning community. But New York is far from Storm Lake, and current contract negotiations may bring it only a tiny bit closer.

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