A few weeks ago, a new Bible teacher confessed that, although she spent her whole first year immersed in teaching, she felt like she hadn’t forged any enduring relationships at the school. She experienced what David Tyack, in his 1974 historical accounting of American schools, describes as the “egg crate” phenomena. Teachers operate in isolated classrooms that resemble egg crates—each operating on their own, focused on their own students and with minimal contact with their colleagues. This default phenomenon is urgently worth unpacking, especially as workplaces regear in the great reshuffling and as schools struggle to keep and attract talent.
From a teacher’s workplace perspective, school can be both a highly sociable and a highly isolating place. Unlike so many workers at cubicles or remote work, teachers see dozens and dozens of people daily. Teaching is, by its nature, an exercise in collaboration. But schools are architecturally compartmentalized, faculty divided by subject matter, and the school day segmented by bells. Part-time teachers come and go, while full-time teachers have little time for small talk. Prep periods are scattered throughout the day. Teachers certainly see each other, but they rarely interact meaningfully. Few have time to chat, let alone eat and spend time together as a community of educators.
Teachers need it. Administrators want it. Everyone works better with it. Yet our collective sense of a workplace “community” has become trite and overhyped. Missives with “Dear X community” does not a community make. Cordiality is not community. Ditto for full faculty meetings.
What does make community is not a secret: food. Research suggests that shared time over shared food is an essential ingredient for workplace happiness and productivity. Jewish tradition also places emphasis on shared meals as a means of creating a sense of community. At a time when teachers are being pulled farther apart from one another, can bringing in the bagels alleviate teacher isolation?
Food as Social Glue
As we enter this new age of working, we know what workers need from their workplaces. A 2021 McKinsey Quarterly survey across five countries and over 5,500 managers and workers found a disconnect between what employers and employees valued in their work communities. While employers thought employees valued compensation and work-life balance above all factors, employees placed a sense of being valued by their organization and a sense of belonging as their top values, far above compensation. The study suggested a reprioritization for businesses, especially those in people-facing roles, to build a sense of belonging and community. People need relationships, not transactions, to feel grounded in their work. One of their top recommendations to engage people in community? Food.
Plenty of workplace research supports this assertion. My favorite is a study by Cornell University’s Kevin Kniffin and colleagues of more than a dozen fire stations in one American city. After more than a year of study, one topline trend emerged: Firefighters who ate together fought better together—twice as well, in fact, as firefighters whose stations had more isolated social interactions. Kniffin found that individual eating among firefighters was a signal of deeper dysfunction at the station, with potential life-and-death consequences. Kniffin argued that daily spaghetti dinners (the firefighter food of choice) served as the glue that bound the first responders in teamwork and personal mutual friendships.
Jews are no strangers to eating as a community. Are you eating with someone else? Best to talk Torah to elevate the meal, according to Pirkei Avot. Are you eating a meal with three people? Say a special preamble to Birkat Hamazon, grace after meals. Eating with more than 10? Add a special insertion to the preamble to acknowledge the moment. Celebrating a life event? Eat. Our tradition identifies a meal as a time for caring, camaraderie, elevated conversation. Most Jewish social programming revolves around or someway includes food (when was the last time you joined a synagogue event without food besides for Yom Kippur?). Like Kniffin’s firefighters, Jewish rituals around eating discourage eating alone.
Two personal anecdotes, both about French fries, tease out this tension. At the conclusion of my first year teaching in an urban charter school as part of Teach or America, our administrators took us on a faculty bowling trip. We all piled into a yellow bus and divided into teams. Here were colleagues I had spent dozens of hours within professional development and grade-level meetings.
Yet socially were strangers. As we (or rather, everyone else as I keep Kosher) ate lots of French fries, we talked about—what else?—students. We all got to school before seven and left after five. We put in the time together. But we had little else in common. All those hours eating at our desks and running into the teacher workroom to photocopy class materials translated into workplace solidarity but not workplace community (despite all the emails insisting that, in fact, we were one).
That isolation contrasts with my first job as a school administrator. Our yeshiva served dinner nightly, because the school day ended past eight in the evening. I tried to stay for dinner as often as I could, because I saw the comradery among the students and, for that matter, among the other teachers and administrators who stayed. As we ate French fries and chicken (French fries were always on the menu), we would disconnect from the school day and whatever dramas had ensued. We would talk about family, Torah and personal interests. I felt more knowledgeable about my colleagues in a month than in two years at my previous school.
Think back to the most memorable moments of collegiality at your own school. They most likely involve a shared meal. At Ida Crown Jewish Academy, my current school, one big highlight of the year for teachers is a shared meal before our big open house event. One teacher cooks up a storm; everyone sits at a communal table and enjoys each other’s company. It is a Shabbat meal on a Tuesday evening. The most common comment at the meal? “We should do this more often!”