Hey, Teach! Are you free for lunch?

To most teachers, lunchroom duty is an unappetizing shift devoted to keeping food on plates and the volume to a dull roar. But for the teachers at Derby Academy in Hingham, Mass., lunch is opportunity time. Every day, they sit down with students for a "family style" meal.

"For all of us, it's a question of stopping," says headmaster Edward Foley. And, he adds, it's a great way to find out what's on kids' minds.

Experts have long known that regularly sharing a meal can offer

tremendous benefits to both adults and children. A 1996 Harvard University study showed that regular family dinner conversation is a powerful predictor of children's success in learning.

Although communication can take place at many times and in many ways, the act of eating together is special, says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York and author of "Ask the Children."

"It takes time," she points out. "You've got a captive audience." Especially with adolescents, Ms. Galinsky says, "It's hard to just whip into a meaningful relationship. Eating gives you something else to do while you're getting there."

In Japan, children and teachers regularly eat together, and the kids bear responsibility for setting things up and cleaning up after the meal. In France, it's traditional for elementary students to sit down for a full meal with teachers. Yet in most US schools, the idea of putting kids and adults at the same lunch table is an alien one. And some educators lament the loss of a potentially rich opportunity for connection.

Eating together 101

Milan O'Brenovich is well aware of the divide that often separates adolescents and adults. The principal of the Novi Middle School in Novi, Mich., has a simple piece of advice for those teachers and parents who agonize over their desire to bridge that gulf: Pull up a chair at noon and try a little lunch-time conversation.

"It's amazing what kids will tell you" as they eat, he says.

At Novi, a brand-new structure just opened this year, the faculty and student lunch rooms were deliberately designed to be separated only by a glass wall, in hope of creating a greater sense of openness and communication.

But Mr. O'Brenovich admits that only two or three teachers have made an effort to cross the glass barrier and sit down with the kids. He himself, he says, only gets around to doing it a couple of times a week.

It's not easy, he concedes. "Teachers only have 35 minutes for lunch. They may need some time to themselves." Also, he acknowledges, students aren't always open to the idea. "There are times when kids want to eat with their peer groups and don't want teachers around."

But there are also moments when students crave such attention, points out Robert Pianta, a professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Our schools aren't really set up to do that," he agrees. "But it's a way in which adults communicate the value of kids." If they sit down at the lunch table, he says, they're telling students, "It's worth it to me to spend time with you."

At many private schools, eating lunch together - often at assigned tables - has long been a normal part of the school day. "It has such a civilizing effect," says Linda Henderson, a fourth-grade teacher at Derby Academy, a private school in Hingham, Mass.

Even students say it has some benefits. "You feel closer to the teachers" as a result, says Mackenzie Rader, an eighth-grader, who laughs as she remembers that her Latin teacher once showed her a picture of himself as a boy while they were eating.

Filling a void

That kind of interaction can help fill a void left in the lives of many American adolescents, says Joseph Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville. "In American society in general, we're not good at helping teens to have meaningful contact with adults beyond their parents," he says.

"One hundred years ago, extended families and neighborhoods may have done that. But now it doesn't happen."

He adds, however, that he's hesitant to suggest that shared lunch ought to become a regular feature at schools. "To be fair to teachers, they're on the front line with large groups of adolescents all day long," he points out. "They need to structure their day in a way that's sane."

In some ways, he says, to ask schools to take responsibility for a closer outside-the-classroom relationship to kids is "to add something else to their agenda," and to fail to recognize "that schools can't do everything."

At Derby, several teachers note that eating with students is workable because they have other times during the day in which they can meet with fellow teachers or prepare for classes.

Of course, most public schools can't require teachers to spend their lunch periods with students, as teachers are generally guaranteed a certain amount of duty-free time at midday. In New York City, for example, union regulations wouldn't allow a teacher who wanted to eat in the student cafeteria to do so unless fellow union members voted by a 75 percent majority to permit it.

Despite obstacles, some students and teachers say it's an idea they'd love to experiment with, although the current system doesn't make it easy. Nancy Flescher, an English teacher at Wellesley Middle School in Wellesley, Mass., says she likes being with her students and wouldn't mind spending a little extra time with them at lunch.

"But we only get 20 minutes to eat," she says. "And the kids eat in about four seconds."

In addition, she worries, her students might not really welcome such an experience. "It would cramp their conversation," she says.

But Martine Larkowich, one of her eighth-grade students, disagrees. "It would be cool to have your teacher eat with your friends," he says. "I think most kids would like it." Most of the time, he complains, "Your teachers don't tell you much about themselves. That's something that's missing."

At the Minnesota New Country School, a charter school for seventh- through 12th-grades in Henderson, Minn., shared lunch between teachers and students is not unusual. At the 135-student school, teachers and students eat in the same space at a few closely placed tables.

Although many days the teachers join together at one table, "at least once a week we make an effort to break up and eat with the kids," says Dean Lind, an algebra teacher and adviser at the school.

Students say it's great hanging out with teachers over lunch. "They're fun to be around," says Jack Bovee, a senior at the school. "They have a different perspective."

As a history buff, Jack says he also loves to mine his teachers' memories over lunch. "They lived through the cold war," he says. "You can ask them things like, 'Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?' "

Mr. Lind says he's baffled by teachers who protest that sharing lunch in an informal fashion could undermine respect for authority. "Some people say you can't fraternize with the ranks and keep discipline," he says. "And yet in families, we do that all the time."

For Novi principal O'Brenovich, an effort to occasionally break ranks and socialize at lunch is really part of a larger attempt "to make some smallness of this bigness" at his 920-student school. Especially in this post-Columbine era, he points out, there's a painful awareness of "how disenfranchised some kids are," and how important it is that many of them "don't just get lost in the shuffle."

Eating together, he suggests, could be one means of fighting that disenfranchisement. He warns, however, that teachers and administrators who try it may have to steel themselves against a certain amount of rejection. "If you sit down and the kids all get up and move to another table," he says, laughing, "that's a pretty clear sign they don't want to talk to you."

*Liz Marlantes contributed to this story from Hingham, Mass.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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