It started with an accident, as good things often do, compounded by necessity, and spirited on by honesty and true connection.
I have a coffee pot in my office, which I fill when I get to work and which in turn fills the room with the welcoming smell that has accompanied conversation since the time of the Restoration. One morning a few years ago, a math teacher leaned in my open door, an empty cup in her hand. I offered her coffee, and while I was pouring an English teacher stopped and looked in. I pulled an empty mug from a cupboard and filled it too. The two teachers set to talking.
Half an hour later, when it was time for the next class to begin, they left, and I thought to myself: we adults on a school campus have too few opportunities to talk about this grand adventure we call education.
One of the biggest challenges for busy educators is making the time to meaningfully connect with other adults. Isolated in classrooms, students, parents, and myriad obligations jockeying for our attention, it’s easy to spend a day without building opportunities to talk with others who aren’t teenagers about teaching and learning.
That day in my office the three of us did just that.
The result was more than just sharing ideas about how to teach writing or what strategies might help a student struggling with math. As we talked about those things, and many others, all three of us realized the importance of the adults at a school really knowing each other. That half hour or so opened my eyes to the priority I needed to make strengthening the connections within our faculty family.
Alone in my office afterward, I considered the ways I might recapture that magic. I have a coffee maker, I thought. And teachers have prep periods.
$10 bought enough mugs for sharing, and I sent out emails asking teachers to an hour of coffee and conversation, no agenda, no script, just a chance to talk.
Feeling a little like a wedding planner organizing a reception brunch, I invited teachers from a mix of departments, blending veterans and rookies, and doing my best to imagine interesting combinations.
Interesting they were.
Over the course of the next several weeks, I heard the thoughts of those who work most closely with students, the heart and soul of the school, the teachers. They told stories that made me think, asked questions that forced me to reflect, and described what they did in ways that inspired me. Discretion keeps the content of those conversations out of this little post, but candor and honesty resonated in such a way that I knew in the first few days that this would be a part of what I did every year as a site administrator.
Nothing compares to visiting classrooms and sharing long individual conversations with teachers in the stolen moments of a day, but these “coffees,” as the teachers took to calling them, created a level of connection qualitatively different from regular school meetings or even impromptu conversations in the copy room.
Maybe it was that I was pleasantly outnumbered, or maybe the coffee was pretty good, but folks (including me) relaxed and spoke the truth.
I got a hug or two from teachers, shared much laughter, and got to know the people I worked with better than I might have any other way.
On one occasion, as I introduced three teachers, a veteran science teacher confessed to me that while he’d worked at the school for fifteen years and the woman sitting next to him, a world language teacher, had been teaching there for three years, this was the first time he’d actually met her. In that sobering moment, I realized how important it is to find ways for the adults who work so hard with and for students to not be strangers.
Our conversations ranged freely from work to play to family. Some told stories of why they became teachers, others talked about issues that they saw as important to our school. Twice teachers came with lists of issues they wanted not to forget to talk about. Occasionally a teacher would bring pastries.
And once, in a moment less pleasant than hugs or coffee cake, I was given a wake up call.
It was a veteran teacher who said it, one who had been at the school for years. Conversation had been flowing with stories of the school, in part the result of entertaining a group of teachers who had all been working together for more than a decade. About 45 minutes into our discussion, this teacher crossed his arms over his chest and leaned forward on his elbows. “So now I’ve got to tell you,” he said seriously, “about a time when you let me down.” He had my attention.
The other teachers leaned back, sucking their cheeks and fiddling with their cups of coffee. I held my mug between my hands and kept my eyes on his.
Slowly and deliberately, he described a concern he’ d brought to my attention a year and a half before. It was one of those passing remarks, delivered between classes, that as an administrator I hear, catalog, and do my best to follow up on when I get back to my office. My response had not been robust enough, nor my reporting back to him prompt and thorough enough, to earn his respect. I hadn’t thought of the incident for eighteen months; he’d held onto it and what had been a minor annoyance had grown inside him.
I apologized, acknowledged what I could have done better, and thought: what a shame it is that he lived with this frustration for so long.
Langston Hughes wrote a famous poem that asks what happens to a “dream deferred.” In “Harlem,” he asks, does it…
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
So too the unexpressed feelings that naturally fill us.
Coffee may not be the only answer to the big questions, but in my own professional life it has afforded me the opportunity to connect with amazing colleagues and not defer the things we ought to be saying.
I just hit “send” on my most recent round of invitations to “Coffee and Conversation” and I can hardly wait to talk with my teachers about what’s on their minds and what fills their cups.