Students get a peek inside the secret world of teachers’ lounges

Lynette Mawhinney spent 312 hours observing an elementary school teachers’ lounge and debunked myths about them in a presentation. (Tom O’Dell / Photo Editor)

Students and faculty members learned the benefits of elementary school teachers’ lounges at the year’s first Urban Education Seminar, held in room 406 of Forcina Hall on Oct. 20.

The presentation, titled “The Social Life of Urban Elementary Teachers: Exploring Interactions and Networks in Teachers’ Lounges,” emphasized the importance of teachers being provided with an exclusive environment to vent, relax and share knowledge.

Lynette Mawhinney, an associate professor at the College and the newest faculty member in the Urban Education option, led the interactive discussion.

She began by introducing the topic, which she deemed something “near and dear” to her — teachers’ lounges.

The phrase conjures up various myths and thoughts, often negative. To illustrate this point, Mawhinney had attendees break into groups and create collective lists about what comes to mind when thinking of these lounges.

Lists included “gossip,” “professional support,” “relaxation,” “food,” “recovery” and “venting.”

Although some responses were positive, Mawhinney explained that oftentimes first-year teachers are advised to stay out of the teacher’s lounge.

When she began her research, she said, “People told me I was crazy. They said, ‘Why would you wanna spend time in that nasty place?’ ”

Mawhinney spent two years of ethnography at an elementary school in Philadelphia, which she presented under the pseudonym James E. Farmer School, where she spent 312 hours of observation.

Originally this school had a large lounge, but ran into a problem when they needed a new counselor’s office. Since it’s mandated by law that schools provide a lounge, the school relocated teachers to the Home and School Room, which was where parents worked.

Teachers were dissatisfied and felt this wasn’t a safe place to relax. They couldn’t fully vent with parents around. In time, they created their own “lounges” in classrooms and libraries.

Lounges are important places for teachers to gather, since they are usually surrounded by students and rarely see other adults throughout the day, Mawhinney said. Being provided with congregational spaces, such as lounges, offices and libraries, serves two purposes for teachers — combating isolation and professional knowledge sharing.

She explained that ways to combat isolation include humor, food, storytelling, reassurance and affirmation through sharing similar stories. These provide ways for teachers to cope with any stress they encounter throughout the day.

Veteran teachers often share their wisdom with novice teachers. At the Philly school, a student teacher named Kate worked with Shanae, a teacher within one year of retirement. Through her time spent with Shanae, Kate gained new, effective techniques in carrying out lunch detentions and dealing with students.

Teachers who ate by themselves at this school were more likely to leave, and those same teachers had been told in their undergraduate years to avoid the lounge. Interaction in the lounges eases the hardships of the emotional labor the teachers perform, Mawhinney said.

Implications from her research include teachers being able to channel their voices into a discourse, encouraging school districts to ensure a place for teachers and providing insight into retention and attrition rates of teachers.

Mawhinney concluded by offering this advice to student teachers or those conducting field notes: “People who have gone in say that those teachers are the nastiest things (after hearing them gossip or talk about students). But by going in and then venting afterwards, how are you using your time the same way? It’s structured into it. Think of it with a critical eye and look at it that way.”

In other words, discussion is a healthy and necessary means of coping with daily stresses.

After the presentation ended, Jason Voss, sophomore chemistry major, said “ I’ve been in teachers’ lounges in my high school. The presentation was really accurate. After seeing teachers lounges from my perspective, she did a good job of providing a similar depiction.”

“I liked it because it gave me a better insight into the lounges,” said Erica Roberts, freshman urban education and English major. “It’s not just all gossip, and it serves as a way for teachers to come together and support one another.”