A good friend for many years and guest blogger (see here and here), Jerry Brodkey has taught social studies and math for over 30 years at Menlo-Atherton High School (MA) in Northern California. He currently teaches Advanced Placement (AP) Calculus and Integrated Algebra. Well-respected among his colleagues–he has been a member for many years of the union negotiating team that bargains with the district when a contract expires–Brodkey sent out the following email to his colleagues last May just before the school year ended.
One of the best parts of the school year for me is after the AP test. In addition to some other activities, each student in my AP Calculus classes is asked to speak for approximately 15 minutes about themselves. They may talk about their families, travels, hobbies, sports, college decisions, etc., Some of these presentations are light-hearted, some very serious. We all learn about each other in a gentle, supportive environment. Students seem to love this, and so do I.
I’d like to try this with staff members, too. Even though I have been here many years, I realize that there are many staff I simply don’t know, and even among the members of my own department, I’d like to know them at a more personal level. So I’d like to try this. Some of the best moments I have had at MA have been the results of feeling a sense of community, a deepening of relationships with all who work here.
Although my room is open for students almost every day at lunch, I’d like to dedicate Thursday lunches to this small initiative. I’ll simply tell my students that Thursday at lunch I won’t be available. Instead, I’d like to invite all staff to my room (or some other place ….) for this experiment. We might have a pretty good crowd, or I might be eating lunch by myself. If my room is too small we’ll find another place. I’ll be happy to organize a schedule. Since lunch is short, I think one or perhaps two speakers per week. No obligation, no memberships, come when you can. Bring papers to grade if you want. Come late, leave early if you need to. Classified, certificated, administrative, everyone.
If we need a moderator I’ll be happy to do so.
I am thinking each presenter can begin (if they’d like) by addressing these questions.
1. Who are you?
2. How did you come to be at MA?
3. Why are you here and what are you trying to achieve?
4. What are your biggest challenges and frustrations?
5. What do you like to do away from MA?
6. How would you hope to be remembered?
So that is my idea. Nothing complicated, nothing to do now. I’ll bring this back up in August, I just thought I’d present the idea now.
Best wishes for a successful conclusion to this year.
Just a few days ago, Jerry wrote to me this follow-up email on the once weekly lunch-time meetings of teachers held over the past Fall semester:
At the beginning of this school year, we decided to try something new at the high school where I have taught for thirty years, Menlo-Atherton High School in Menlo Park, California. We have a very large staff, split into departments, and each of us know little about our colleagues. We decided one day a week at lunch that one staff member — classified, certificated, administrative — could volunteer to tell about herself. There were really no guidelines, no obligations, no requirements. I developed an optional series of questions that could be used as desired: Who are you? How did you come to be at this school? What do you like to do when not working? What are the rewards and frustrations you have teaching/working at Menlo-Atherton? How would you like to be remembered? We thought we’d give it a try for a semester, then re-evaluate. I wasn’t sure if on these Thursdays I would be having lunch by myself.
So far, I believe it has been wonderful. Our attendance has varied from fourteen to almost thirty, with a surprising mix of veteran and new teachers. There is a core group of about ten of us who make every session, and another group of maybe twenty-five who come when they can. At our school, there is a norm that many teachers welcome students in their rooms at lunch, so it is hard for many staff to close their classroom doors and slip away. Many teachers also sponsor clubs and are engaged with students, Next semester, we are switching from Thursdays to Fridays with the hope that more staff can attend.
Every presentation has been a gift. Some have been very serious, others humorous. Some focus on teaching, others on travels and personal journeys. One first year teacher and one second year teacher bravely volunteered.One week the principal came and presented, and our District Superintendent spoke one week after I let him know what we were attempting. Each week I learn something new about my colleagues.A new physics teacher was in a rickshaw race across India. A veteran teacher talked about donating a kidney to help save her brother’s life. Who knew? The Economics teacher once worked at the Federal Reserve. A science teacher worked across the street as a lab researcher, then one day came to our school to deliver some homework for his daughter and discovered there was an opening for a teacher. He said he spent the entire summer preparing his first day’s lesson and then was faced with the reality of preparing for 179 more days. He said he lost thirty pounds the first semester, pulled many all-nighters, but never looked back with regret over his decision. A new teacher from Romania told us how in her homeland her math teacher routinely slapped students, and if the teacher was too far away to slap a student, the teacher would instruct another student to slap the offending student. One teacher movingly told us how difficult it was for her to be separated from her children who are far away. Several veteran teachers spoke of the difficulties they faced the first few years, with stress, tears, and self doubts. Only by finding a mentor on the staff and building relationships with their peers were they able to survive.
It is , of course, impossible to measure the benefits of these lunches. For myself, whenever I see one of our presenters on campus I now feel a deeper connection, a broader understanding of who they are. We are trying to build relationships, strengthen community, one person at a time. I look forward to our special lunch every week, and find myself slowing down, listening intently. My only regret is that I wish I had started this years ago.