Leadership Lessons from the Lunchroom and Playground
So there I am, a finalist for a vice-principal position, sitting in the superintendent’s office. I’ve run the gauntlet of the selection process and now I’m in the final interview. This will make or break me. I’m beyond nervous.
Would the superintendent ask me about teacher observations? What about parent communication? Perhaps some school finance? Use of technology?
Earlier that morning, I had reread my notes from my graduate work to get ready. I also had spent time reviewing a list of current issues in education and calling colleagues for hints and tips.
So now it’s my big moment. From behind his desk, the superintendent leans forward and asks me his first question. I know I’m ready.
“So tell me, son. You ever do lunch duty?”
Lunch duty? That’s where we’re starting? Lunch duty?
I ended up getting that position, and I loved every moment of it. Looking back and thinking of why my boss-to-be led with that question, I’m pretty certain he put a high priority on an administrator’s ability to supervise large groups of children safely and productively. If you’re thinking of moving up the career ladder, here’s why you should ask your principal for the opportunity to pull lunch and playground duty.
Becoming comfortable with being in charge
School leadership is, well, about leadership. And the first place that a classroom teacher with administrative aspirations can practice these skills is during lunch and recess. Managing a lunchroom with its large variety of children in a relatively unstructured setting requires a different set of skills than those needed in the classroom.
Taking charge of the lunchroom is excellent practice for managing large groups of people, which will eventually transfer to faculty meetings and professional development days with teachers.
Learning to note tone and tenor
Spend enough time in a lunchroom and you’ll become able to pick up on the general attitude and mood of the group. And it will become easier to identify how moods and attitudes ebb and flow with other factors such as the day of the week, the weather outside and the time of the school year.
Developing this “sixth sense” carries over into other areas of professional practice, including reading body language, evaluating the moods of others and then acting on that “gut feeling” to make the best decision. I know this sounds a little bit like the Jedi mind trick from “Star Wars,” but trust me, it works.
Becoming aware of liability issues
As a district superintendent, I review and initial every accident report from our health office (most of them are minor, fortunately). Skinned knees, bumped heads and accidental collisions are part and parcel of childhood, especially outside the classroom, which is why most injuries come from the lunchroom or playground.
Being attuned to potential liability situations and then acting to minimize them is not only ethically appropriate, it’s also an excellent skill for administrators. Seeing potential dangers before others do and acting preemptively to address risks keeps children safe, saving the district time and worry.
Seeing children in a different context
Children are complex members of the school, and being a successful administrator means you need to see them in a different context from their classroom performance. Supervising lunch duty gives teachers the opportunity to interact in a less formal setting, see who children socialize with away from the classroom and work to develop strong relationships with the children. As a vice principal, I felt that I did a lot of preemptive student behavior management during short conversations on the playground or at the lunch table.
Setting expectations, communicating with them effectively and holding everyone accountable are crucial components of leadership. For classroom teachers contemplating taking a front-office job, working with large groups of children to set expectations for their lunch period, supervising that time effectively and holding everyone accountable are excellent skills that transfer to other aspects of administrative life.
Oh, and when you ascend the ranks of school leadership, always carry a whistle on your school key ring. You never know when you’ll get called into lunch duty. It’s nice to jump back into that aspect of school leadership from time to time.
Chicken nuggets, anyone?