Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Real Value of Lunchroom Duty

I remember reading a column in the New York Times by then-education columnist Richard Rothstein entitled “The Secret Value of Lunchroom Duty.”  In the lunchroom, Mr. Rothstein wrote, you could get to know the students in an informal setting, and surpass the restrictions of the classroom, or something like that.  It seemed a very fine idea.

However, having actually done the job, I can tell you Mr. Rothstein’s musings bore little resemblance to reality.  

The last time I was assigned to the lunchroom was upon arrival to a brand-new school.  The dean, the guy in charge, posted me at the front door to check student programs and challenge the kids who didn’t belong.  He posted himself way in the back, by a locked door, where he could peruse the Daily News to his heart’s content.

Despite Rothstein’s presumptions, in a school with thousands of kids, almost none turned out to be my students.  The only kids I got to know really well were those who regularly stole or borrowed programs in order to spend their math periods in the lunchroom.  That’s right—I met the proverbial boy named Sue, and furthermore, I confiscated his phony program.  

Out of sheer boredom, I started asking kids what their third period classes were, what their birthdays were, or who their English teacher was.  Many had no idea, and my collection of programs grew and grew.  Had I known about all the zero percent raises the UFT had in store for me, I might have considered a tidy little business selling them.

Another important job was keeping careful count of the bathroom passes, and making sure you took a valid program for each pass you issued.  There were very particular rules about these passes, but I don’t remember them anymore.  With luck, I won’t need to learn them again.

Sometimes a fight would break out.  As a teacher, I’d learned, I’m not authorized to break up fights, and if hurt trying to break one up, I’d have to pay out of pocket for any and all injuries.  I wrote a long essay on the NTE about this, to describe something I learned outside of the classroom, but will spare you the details for now.  

Sometimes food fights would occur, bringing the dean from behind his Daily News to where the action was.

“Who started it?”

“I have no idea.  I was checking programs.”

The real truth about lunch patrol?  If you love teaching, you’ll hate it.  It’s a mind-numbing waste of time.  You can’t get any work done, because too many things are going on.  You can’t really help any kids, because few, if any, need your help eating lunch.

There’s absolutely no reason school aides can’t do this job as well as teachers.  We’re here to help kids learn, not to police their lunch trays.  I never, ever had the remotest opportunities to get to know kids in the lunchroom.

If you want to get to know kids, have them write regularly in your classroom.  Carefully read everything they write, comment on it, and return it.  This sort of correspondence will let you know things about kids you’d never have suspected otherwise.  You’ll also be able to offer them real grownup advice, which some of them sorely lack.

Unfortunately, this is difficult when you have the highest class size in the state.  It will prove even more difficult when your time is spent teaching a sixth class, the mysterious “small-group instruction,” and a lunch patrol, in which you may expect to complete no work whatsoever.  

With the inevitable full sixth class in our next contract, you can expect this job to cut even further into your “free” time.  And if you can’t see that full class coming, you need your eyes examined.

Me, I’ll probably move away from essays, and toward multiple choice tests to be pushed through scantrons.  How can I read hundreds of papers on a daily basis when I have two other jobs, precious little time to do so, and, apparently, no one in Tweed or the UFT who thinks it’s of any value?

In any case, if any of this has piqued your interest in lunch patrol, you should probably vote “yes” on this contract.  
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