Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why Did They Close the Teacher Workroom?


By Dr. Michael Flanagan







“Is there a teacher workroom in this building”? Based on the answer to that question one can adequately assess the morale in a public school. Teacher workrooms, also known as the teacher break rooms, teacher prep rooms, or the teacher lunchroom, seem to have gone the way of the career educator. Both may still be in the building, but they are neglected depositories of discarded knowledge and skills. Veteran teachers may recall the days of the smoke-filled rooms, vinyl couches and Styrofoam cups of discarded coffee stuffed with cigarette butts. The workrooms were usually equipped with a crusty microwave and a refrigerator where you could leave your lunch, which you’d occasionally return to find that someone had already half eaten. These unassuming rooms were teacher sanctuaries; places to recharge, discuss student behaviors or simply vent. You could eat your lunch, commiserate with coworkers and perhaps pick up some coping strategies to help get you through the day. If you were lucky, teacher workrooms were the one place you could find a functioning copy machine, or as I like to call it, the Holy Grail of pedagogy. Equal parts union building and gossip dissemination, the teacher break room was the hub of faculty unity. So why close them down?

School reformers attempt to justify the closing of teacher workrooms by saying they need the room to relieve over crowded classes. While I agree that public schools are overcrowded, largely due to budget cuts or charter schools carving up available space like a Thanksgiving turkey, I think at this point we must suspect there is an ulterior motive. Since many of us ate lunch in the workrooms some might assume they are trying to starve us out of our jobs. While I agree that eliminating duty free lunch periods is on the short list of strategies to remove public school teachers and replace them with Teach For America temp labor, I do not think closing teacher workrooms is designed to induce malnourishment. It is a tactic to break up camaraderie, cut down on free communication, and prevent consensus building among faculty members.

You probably have noticed the removal of many resources in your school that used to help build up teacher morale. This is not an accident. When setting up the public school system for failure, education reformers must keep the teachers off balance and disjointed. Elimination of workrooms is a calculated ploy designed to create discord and prevent the dissemination of information. That blank stare you receive from many rank and file teachers when attempting to rally support for the opt-out movement, encourage protests against high stakes testing, or to fight the use of value added models for evaluations is proof this strategy is effective. Closing down teacher workrooms creates the public school’s version of The Walking Dead. Not having a communal place to go between periods where we can learn from our colleagues leads to confusion and apathy. Teachers become sort of like the zombies from the show. Education activists take on the role of the last survivors struggling futilely to shed light on the reformers’ agenda until eventually being bitten and turned (i.e.: receiving an ineffective evaluation). Then it’s just a matter of time before the metaphorical knife is driven through our brains (i.e.: retirement via Danielson Rubric). And this is the ultimate goal of the education reformer: to destroy the minds, and hearts, of veteran educators. Make us all into wandering zombies that will ultimately be replaced by shiny new TFA drones.


Research shows that effective managers seek to build employee morale, and that is exactly my point. Reformers are not out to improve teacher morale; they are out to destroy it. Throughout history whenever politicians and propagandists have implemented a counter intelligence campaign to win the hearts and minds of those subjected to tyranny, they always target the local leaders and eliminate the forums where free ideas are exchanged. In a school community the best way to obliterate democratic ideals is to close down the workrooms in order to squash collegial communication during lunch and prep periods. Reformers are proficient in the art of stifling the “dangerously subversive discourse” that the average elementary school teacher might take part in during a 40-minute free period. Leadership Academy and Broadie Superintendent graduates trained in the business model of education management know they have to stop teachers from discussing the inappropriateness of Common Core, the stress our students face under high stakes testing or the subjective rubrics being used like bullets during our drive by evaluations. Politicians can demean our unions, or co-opt our leadership, but during the back room meetings in lavish corporate offices, lobbyists and political shills must have realized that unions consist of actual people. 


Education reformers are aware that no matter how oppressed, over worked and stressed out they make teachers lives, if there is a common workroom we would still be able to share ideas and anecdotes. For instance, a bullied teacher might discuss the particulars of a recent classroom observation and point out that past suggestions for “improvement”, although implemented, were now being disregarded. Colleagues could be informed that the one criticism cited during a post observation conference was that they were looking for more group work. Or vice versa. At times like these, I like to point out to the evaluator that I could have jumped out the window, but decided to walk down the stairs instead. It is all a matter of preference. But I digress. The fact is, if there is a place in the building to share important insights our fellow teachers may not have to internalize these soul-crushing evaluations. They will be less likely to question their careers or give in to despair. We would be able to support and encourage each other. The privatizers do not want teachers to feel supported. That is why they are eliminating the workrooms. 


I know many of you reading this article have been fighting the good fight by speaking, writing, marching, protesting, opting out, conscientiously objecting and organizing actions. I know the frustration that you feel when you turn to someone who works in the same school as you, yet is completely unaware of the very real ramifications that corporate education reform is having on our students and profession. You just want to shake them and scream wake up! But with the lack of cohesiveness among school faculties, we have no way to impart the nuisances’ of corporate reform strategy. 


So I have a suggestion. Bring the fight down to terms we can all relate to: microwaves and copy machines. Next time you are trying to recruit a colleague to join the resistance against corporatization, don’t focus on the politics behind the takeover of public schools. Bring it down to a more tangible level. Start with the simple question: “Do you know why they closed the teacher workroom”? The revolutionary flames against education reform may be fanned though the lack of places to eat lunch or the inability of a teacher to make copies. Whatever works, use it. ^0^

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