Bring in the Bagels: Can Eating Together Alleviate Teacher Isolation?

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!”



Not by Bagels Alone

How might schools think about food to help build and sustain the sense of teacher belonging so many are desperate for in their workplaces? Ethnographer Jesse Dart’s Feeding the Hustle: Free Food & Care Inside the Tech Industry explores the significance and importance of eating together. Sponsored food has become de rigueur in the tech industry, where fancy snacks, fresh juices and even in-house chefs are common features (less so with the recent economic downturn). Food keeps the coders happy and, more importantly, at their desks for longer. Businesses that viewed food as a strategic investment found their efforts paid dividends. Reading Dart’s analysis of the ways some businesses lavish food on employees, with varying degrees of success, suggests, well, not by bagels alone. The community-creating companies didn’t just serve food. They thought about where food is consumed, what was offered and when it was offered.

Teachers inhabit an entirely different work world from computer scientists. Contrasting the tech world’s corporate largess with the education world’s not-for-profit paucity seems to only emphasize our workplace’s limitations. But Dart’s research suggests that successful workplace engagements around food need not require expensive or expansive food offerings. In fact, Dart argues that most businesses care too much about the food itself. Instead, his in-depth research suggests more deliberate planning about where and when food is offered. A well-timed breakfast, with time for teachers to pause and enjoy each other’s company, will prove more effective than a more lavish grab-and-go lunch.

Dart’s research also suggests that place is equally important. Study after study point to how much employees despise open-office plans and so-called “hot-desking”—shared workplaces that are common in teacher workrooms. These spaces lack warmth, permanence and a sense of ownership. On the flip side, offering no shared space for teachers and relying on their classrooms as offices and resting spaces keeps teachers compartmentalized and isolated.

Encouraging teachers to eat in shared spaces, by providing snacks or other incentives, can counteract these design downsides of common school spaces. Planning around space also can prevent a so-called loneliness spiral, where employees who feel isolated become less approachable, less willing to engage and less committed. These welcoming spaces can interrupt this spiral by giving teachers a place to engage with their colleagues.

My current school features four office spaces across the building to encourage bonding within and between subject-area teacher teams. While these rooms do have printers and other equipment, they are primarily used as meeting and workrooms. Some of those office spaces are teeming with positive energy, while others are used less frequently. 

It is no coincidence that the most trafficked office space is the one where teachers come early, share lunch, exchange ideas, bring birthday balloons and play light pranks on one another. Most schools can carve out an underutilized classroom space for this type of room and, with the proper ingredients, create a space where social eating and serendipitous interaction can take place.

The many articles and research papers on the relationship between food and workplace suggest a few nudges for our schools. Gauging the percentage of teachers who eat alone is a good barometer of workplace cohesion. Counting how many times in a year the faculty bench with a zimmun (a communal blessing after the meal) is also a good indicator of the importance a school places on opportunities for personal connection. 

Designating or designing a space in the building for teachers to gather is an important starting point. Successful teacher lounges or workrooms straddle the line between personal and professional. Carving out time is equally important but more logistically complicated. All these organizational behaviors are physical indicators of what the McKinsey report said that employees need: a sense of belonging and community.


What’s Stopping Us?

If the upsides to workplace well-being and sense of belonging are so obvious and urgent, why are schools not doing more of these simple bagel breakfasts or those firefighter “spaghetti dinners”? Often, just organizing food for teachers is fraught with petty office politics.

Historian Cyril Parkinson’s Law of Triviality comes to mind: “The amount of attention a problem gets is the inverse of its importance.” He based his quip on dramatization of a typical administrative committee tasked with approving a $100 million nuclear reactor, $4,000 for an employee bike shed and $200 for employee refreshments in the break room (adjusted for inflation). Not surprisingly, the committee quickly approved the nuclear reactor, because the scope and expertise are too difficult to consider. The committee hems and haws about the bike shed. Yet two-thirds of the debate is relegated to how best to spend the refreshment account (“Which coffee brand?” “Which type of cookies?”) and even whether to spend the money at all. 

This anecdote, well supported in behavioral economics literature, is cited by authors and critics to suggest that people in organizations pay more attention to unimportant issues than toward issues that really matter. But this story is also about petty office politics and food. Everyone has an opinion about food. Everyone wants to see their preference reflected in the consensus. These opinions often get in the way of rolling out bite-sized programs that encourage teacher community and ultimately affect the core sense of community in the school (the “nuclear reactor”!).

At a time when the average outlay to replace a teacher now runs north of an estimated $20,000 (never mind the hidden costs of replacing a teacher to the climate and functioning of schools), the cost-effectiveness ratio of small employee engagement programs to help retain teachers and increase teacher job satisfaction is a bargain. Of course, food cannot alter the fundamental dynamics in schools; free food doesn’t keep a great teacher working just one more year. But food does signal to teachers where the priorities of a school lie on a transactional-relational spectrum. With the consequences this high, it pays to bring out a nice tray of bagels. Maybe even some lox.

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HaYidion Spring 2023: Relationships
Spring 2023