You know that iconic scene in How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original, not that abominable remake) when the narrator says, “Well, in Whoville they say that the Grinch's small heart, grew three sizes that day.” I recently had one of those moments at school—and it was during cafeteria duty, of all things.
I’m going to admit to something that will make most of my teacher friends think I’m insane: I like cafeteria duty. Fifth and sixth grade cafeteria duty, to be exact. During my first week, I got hit in the head with a pear. A few weeks ago, I mopped up a mess after someone had thrown a container of spoiled milk down the hallway. The smell caused a student to projectile vomit—just as I arrived with hundreds of hungry kids right behind me wanting to go in for lunch. It was not pretty. The milk was up the walls, the vomit was across the floors.
We have one custodian and during lunch he is running like crazy, emptying garbage cans, mopping up the countless spilled milks and dropped lunch trays. He somehow manages to already be doing the job of two people. So, I cleaned the hallway, gagging all the way.
That was the worst day of lunch duty.
An Opportunity to Connect With Kids
Most of the time, I find lunch duty to be this amazing chance to check up on the students. Since I get there a few minutes before the students (as the second and third graders are heading outside), I quickly clean the tables so my group has a nice place to sit. Then I try to position myself by the salad bar and, as kids come out of the line with their trays, I beg and cajole them to try a vegetable or grab a piece of fruit. “Your bodies are going to grow half of a foot this year,” I say, “And it is going to make those bones and skin and hair out of what you eat! If you just eat junk, you’ll have a junk body! Grab a vegetable!”
Most of the kids ignore me, but every kid who gets a vegetable gets some praise. As I walk around the room, checking in with each table, I ask the students how they are. I’ll push the vegetables some more and compliment them on how clean they have been leaving their tables—and I tell them how much I appreciate it. They know I cleaned it for them. During that first week of cafeteria duty, when I got bopped by that pear, the students were leaving trash, spilled milk and full trays everywhere.
The difference has been substantial. It fills me with joy to reaffirm that main ideal that drives me as a teacher. Thoughtful modeling and positive reinforcement combined will change the behaviors of a single kid or an entire group.
So, I love cafeteria duty. I was a waiter when I was in school, so I use those skills. Walk the room, check the plates, see if my “customers” need anything. At our school, the kids can’t get up without raising their hands. Usually, they want a napkin or some hot sauce. And usually, I’ll go get it for them. I play the waiter, “here you go sir,” and the kids just light up.
Sometimes You’re Just One Step Away From ‘Lord of the Flies’
But last week was different. Last week I found myself having to break up one of the most violent fistfights I’ve ever seen. Stepping into a fight is scary, even when you are a big guy like me. Not only is there the fight to think about, but it also forces me to violate the comfort zone I have as a teacher.
I have to get into a student’s space and block them with my own body. If they are trying to move past me, it becomes physical with them pushing and shoving me or trying to fight around me. I am not a "huggy" teacher. I will pat shoulders, but that’s about it for me unless a student is in extreme distress or has grabbed me for a hug before I had a chance to move away.
To break up a fight in the cafeteria is also like being on a stage. You have a large audience watching you do something with which you are extremely uncomfortable. And they are all yelling and forming a circle just as you are trying to calm things down.
The general public will be scratching their heads, but teachers will know exactly what I’m talking about here: When you teach, you are often only one step away from that island in Lord of the Flies.
After the fight, our custodian did his Superman routine in the cafeteria, which left me to clean the blood up off the floor. Blood of a kid I like and see every day. That was a rough way to start the week and I have found myself a bit edgy in the cafeteria ever since. I was across the room for the big fight, so I couldn’t stop it as quickly as I would have liked. This week I’ve felt I need to watch for that more than I need to check in with my kids.
After the fight, I found myself dreading cafeteria duty. I joked about the barfing and fighting, but truth is, when I looked at the floor I kept picturing it with blood on it. I just felt a little down.
And then my heart grew a couple of sizes.
Acts of Kindness Don’t Always Require Language
One of the classes I work with has a student who does not speak English. I looked over and saw her sitting alone at a table eating her lunch. And my heart sank.
Most of the class was sitting together at a table, having fun, being goofy and so I went over to them and gestured to the lone girl. “That’s not OK,” I said, not really sure how to handle the situation.
“But she doesn’t speak English,” a student said.
I took in a deep breath, the words already forming in my head, “That is the beauty of acts of kindness, you don’t need language.” But, before I could say a word, the students, seemingly passing a psychic message, all stood up with their trays at the same moment, moved to the empty table and surrounded their classmate.
I just stood there, my mouth open and with the sudden realization that I was doing the most uncool thing you can do in a K-8 cafeteria, as a tear rolled down my uncool cheek.
My heart grew three sizes. And I was reminded of why I love my job.
Did I mention how much I love cafeteria duty?
May your year end on a beautiful note and may your classrooms be wonderful, inclusive and kind in 2020.
Brett Bigham is the 2014 Oregon State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. He is the only Oregon special education teacher to be named Teacher of the Year and to win the NEA National Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the creator of Ability Guidebooks, a series of support books for people with autism that give step-by-step directions how to ...