From Critique to Vision: The Story of Two Teacher Lunch Rooms

You can tell a lot about the culture of a school from the way teachers engage with each other during lunch. The all-too-short lunch break is the eye of the storm - a moment to step back from the chaos of the classroom. In many schools, lunch offers time to recharge, connect with colleagues, and make plans. But when things are off in classrooms, underlying problems are evident in lunch room conversation. In fact, the lunch room environment may be symptomatic of underlying issues with school culture, and these issues – particularly a culture of critique rather than vision – can impact a schools’ ability to make positive change.

The significance of the lunch room became apparent to me through my experience working in schools.  At Green Arches Elementary*, for example, teachers used their lunch as a venue for critique. They vented about their long hours, gossiped about the principal, and criticized the behavior of students in their classes. When I worked at Green Arches, I ate in my office. The teacher’s lounge, usually a welcome change from the classroom – with the smell of reheated leftovers, the squishy sofas, and synthetic plants - had instead become an unpleasant environment that I avoided at all costs. The constant criticism of the school and its students fostered demotivation and discouragement among teachers. Suggestions for improvement, no matter how well-intentioned, were always focused on changing what teachers didn’t like rather than moving towards what teachers actually wanted for their students and school community. As a result, staff found themselves in a reoccurring cycle of critique and pessimism.

Meanwhile, at Mountain Springs Elementary – just a 5-minute drive away – I ate lunch in the teacher’s lounge whenever I could. At Mountain Springs, teachers used their lunchtime as a venue for uplifting their colleagues, building community, and talking excitedly about the future of their students. They surprised each other with gifts, shared food and swapped weekend stories, and excitedly planned for an upcoming spirit day.

What’s interesting is that, from the outside looking in, teachers at Mountain Springs had far more to complain about than teachers at Green Arches: Mountain Springs served the lowest income students, had the fewest private financial contributions, and was located on the smallest plot and in the oldest building in the district. However, the staff at Mountain Springs consciously cultivated a friendly and positive community instead of using their time to critique. There was a sense that the teachers were all on the same team, working toward a common vision for the kind of school they wanted their students to have and the kind of community they wanted to create together.  

Across the different schools I worked in there were similar patterns, and I found that a schools’ approach – critique or vision – impacted implementation of new initiatives. Of particular interest to me was the effect of school culture on inclusive practices for students with disabilities. At some schools – like Mountain Springs - teachers worked together to serve even the most challenging students. There was a feeling that each individual student was “our” student – and everyone was in this together. Other schools – like Green Arches – resisted integration, even with mandated inclusive programming in place. Without a concrete vision around the inherent value of diversity, the role that schools should play in developing a wide spectrum of learners, and the importance of fostering empathy in young citizens of a democracy - students with disabilities were largely excluded from the school community.    

A few years later, I went to graduate school to learn more about how to create inclusive learning environments. During my first quarter at Stanford I took a course on the history of school reform. It turned out I wasn’t the first well-intentioned reformer to come to graduate school to learn how to save schools. In fact, there had been many before me, and they were just as smart and just as dedicated to “fixing” the “problem” with schools as I was. I read about over 150 years of reformers and reform movements - from the common school movement of the 1800s up until the standards movement of today. I learned about the cyclical nature of school reform, and that my career choice was wise because school reform is “steady work” – each new generation of school reformers works to solve the consequences stemming from the last generation of reformers (If you’re interested in reading more, check out: Cuban, 1988; Elmore and McLaughlin, 1988; Labaree, 2010; Raab, 2017).

I was understandably crestfallen. People had been evaluating and analyzing the schooling system for generations. With each new critique came a new set of solutions and with each new set of solutions came a new set of problems to critique. Maybe we don’t need another generation of reformers to write about what is wrong with schools, instead maybe we need the next generation of reformers to participate in the development of a new vision for what schools should do – for individuals and for our society.

My mind wandered back to my experiences with Green Arches and Mountain Springs. I saw these cycles of reform on the micro level in the small and fragmented reform cycles at Green Arches: critique – solution – problem – critique. But at Mountain Springs it had been different. Instead of critique, their solutions came from a vision about the kind of school they wanted for students and the kind of community they wanted to build. When solutions came out of a vision rather than critique, they seemed to propel forward worthwhile and aligned initiatives, motivate widespread action, and sustain a strong sense of community. At Mountain Springs, there was no need to mandate inclusion for students with disabilities - it happened naturally because it aligned with that schools’ vision of inclusivity, community, and collaboration. If this could happen at one school, can it happen in a district? What about a county? A state? The nation?

I believe it can. In fact, it’s possible that the only way to interrupt the cycles of reform, or to move out of the quagmire of negativity, is to stop critiquing and start listening: In our homes, in our schools, and in our communities. We need to have conversations about what we want for our students and what kind of lives we want them to lead. We need to talk about the role that school should play in creating those lives and how schools can ensure that citizens are prepared to participate in democracy. It is the collective visioning process - that Mountain Springs embarked on and that Green Arches neglected - that promotes positivity, increases motivation, and creates a sense of shared ownership over the futures of our children and our society.

At REENVISIONED, we believe a new vision only emerges when thousands join the conversation and together we share our stories, hopes, dreams, fears, and aspirations for our lives and our schools. REENVISIONED partners with schools, community organizations, and nonprofits to facilitate a personalized collective visioning process. We help education organizations build a vision and theory of change, while also becoming part of the larger REENVISIONED movement. Share your hopes and dreams for children with us – join the movement of 10,000 individuals who are coming together not to critique, but to set vision. Be a part of our massive reenvisioning process at REENVISIONED: Sign up to be a Catalyst, pilot our instructional unit in your classroom – make sure that your voice and your vision sets the direction for our schooling system.

Do you work in schools? Get in touch with us. The collective visioning process is a powerful way to engage students, educators, and parents in a meaningful, positive conversation about your mission, vision, and values while also becoming part of a larger movement. Students get to see their work and voices shared with the world.

* all school names are pseudonyms


Tye RipmaComment