The Teachers’ Room and Its Assumptions

Yesterday I stopped by school to take care of a few things and was able to take a nice picture of the teachers’ room. This is about one-quarter or one-fifth of it; it adjoins a coffee room, where people take breaks or eat lunch, and a computer room with six stations. For the most part, teachers do not have rooms like this in the U.S.; instead, they have teachers’ lounges. I propose that they consider having a teachers’ room instead, especially in high schools.

From what I have read (here’s an interesting article on the subject), the “teachers’ lounge” is intended as a “restorative space” where teachers can rest, eat, chat, and possibly meet or work. Teachers do not have any personal desks or other space within it; the room is shared. Many union contracts require a lounge in every school. Where, then, are they supposed to do most of their work? In the classroom. In elementary schools, teachers often (though not always) have their own classroom where they stay all or most of the day. The students come to them (and spend most of the day in the same room). In high schools, teachers often move around, but they may have a desk in one of the classrooms. Many classrooms have two desks, one at the front and one at the back. While one teacher is giving a lesson, another may be in the back, preparing.

That sounds nuts. Why would anyone want to prepare a lesson in a room where another lesson is going on? The rationale is that this saves space and fosters “collaboration”–but in reality it leads to a lot of waste. I have often enjoyed seeing my colleagues’ lessons, but my real preparation would have to wait until the evening hours.

In addition, teachers in the U.S. are lucky if they have a “prep” period in the first place. Suppose there are eight periods in a day. Typically five of these go toward lessons (twenty-five lessons per week), another goes to a non-classroom duty (such as monitoring the cafeteria or hallway), and the one remaining period goes to “prep” or a team meeting. There is a widespread belief that lesson planning should be collaborative–that teachers don’t need any quiet time, in other words. Under those circumstances, the “lounge” comes as a welcome respite from all the hecticness–except that it brings hecticness of its own: gossip, complaining, badmouthing (not at all schools, but at some).

So the type of room available to teachers reflects the very assumptions about what teaching is.

Suppose, now, that instead of a lounge, you have a teachers’ room, where every full-time teacher has a desk, and part-time teachers may share a desk. You may keep your things there, do your work there, eat there, use computers there. You go into the classrooms just to teach your lessons; while you are teaching, there is no other teacher in the room, unless someone is visiting your lesson.

And suppose there are eight periods in a day, and you teach, say, twenty-two lessons per week. In your free periods, you may decide what to do: prepare your lessons, meet with other teachers, or take a break. The teachers’ room, with its adjoining room, allows for all of these things.

It is clear that I prefer the teachers’ room to the lounge–not just the room, but the principles and assumptions underlying it: the assumption that teachers need time to prepare their lessons, that preparation is both solitary and collaborative, that not every moment of the day should be filled with required activity, even if in practice the teachers are working from start to finish.

Sometimes the teachers’ room gets noisy, especially in the breaks between lessons. But it also has long stretches of quiet. And you have everything you need. It is still impossible to get everything done during school hours; especially when I assign writing, I have a lot of reading and grading to do in the evening. But the day itself is more productive and not exhausting.

What about teachers’ availability to meet with students or answer their questions? Students are free to knock on the door of the teachers’ room; in addition, many teachers, myself included, schedule individual or small-group conferences with students.

What about space? Take that extra teacher’s desk out of each classroom, make the classrooms a little smaller, and you have more than enough room for a spacious teachers’ room. It’s just a question of how you apportion the space.

What about cafeteria and hallway duty? Those should not be a teacher’s job. In the U.S., duties have been added to teachers’ schedules, over time, partly as “givebacks” for higher salaries. But this means that teachers are running from one thing to the next (often with five-minute breaks, at most, between lessons). The hecticness affects everyone. Calm things down a little, and people calm down in response.

The teachers’ room also presumes that while the faculty will have plenary meetings now and then (in a different room), teachers do not have to meet with each other all the time. We meet informally when we need to; we can be trusted to figure this out. Sometimes meetings take only a few minutes. But because the teachers’ room exists, it’s easy for us to find each other.

One day, Hungary might start imitating the U.S. (by raising salaries, adding official duties to teachers’ schedules, and maybe even eliminating the teacher’s room). Higher salaries are long overdue; many teachers make the equivalant of $10,000 per year–which goes a lot farther here than it would in the U.S., but is still low. Yet teachers and administrators would do well to beware of “givebacks” that outweigh the raises; once the calm of the day is taken away, it cannot be restored easily. By “calm” I don’t mean inactivity. I mean the kind of quiet that allows the mind to work. As I mentioned before, the teachers’ room can become lively too–not only at certain times of day, but on special occasions, such as when the eleventh-graders enter the teachers’ room to treat us to caroling.

The first teachers’ room I saw was in Istanbul, at the Lycéé Sainte-Pulchérie, which as a guest teacher for two weeks in May 2017. I was amazed by it. I thought it was a feature of a private school. But the one here at Varga, a Hungarian public school, reminds me a lot of the one in Istanbul. Why shouldn’t U.S. schools, especially high schools, have them too?