Covid devastated teacher social patterns. The faculty lounge aims to fix it.
As a student at Stevenson School, you have an abundance of social spaces just
waiting to be used: Rosen, the dining hall, and the Learning Commons alleviate what school stresses. Teachers have the same kinds of stress; for many, the preferred refuge is the mysterious space known as the faculty room.
Until 2003, this refuge — the faculty room — was a tiny space now occupied by the Learning Center, where we take makeup tests. At first, it was a modest workspace akin to what you might find in a public school. Without crucial amenities such as coffee or a refrigerator, faculty did not "lounge" there; the lounge was anything but. Its one virtue was the copier. Nevertheless, when former school president Joe Wandke built the Rosen Student Center (opened in fall of 2003) it included a new lounge that offered what the last lounge couldn’t: comfort and an opportunity for camaraderie.
With half of the room dedicated to socializing and the other half for working, the spiffy new lounge was heaven on earth. Fitted with a coffee machine, a hot/cold filtered water dispenser, refrigerator, comfy chairs, mailboxes, a tie-trading station, copiers, computers, and a guitar, the lounge has everything a teacher can dream of. But nothing good lasts. For almost two decades, the lounge served as a bridge between classes—and a mere “portal to the restrooms," as English teacher David Schmittgens puts it. But its pedestrian ordinariness has been transformed into a utopia for many faculty members, though pandemic instincts to self-isolate have changed some of the social dynamics.
When Mr. Bates first arrived at Stevenson in 2007, he was, as he put it, “young,” “inexperienced,” without an office and without faculty friends. It appeared that the new lounge was calling to him. Over time, he relied on it to give him the “serendipitous encounters” he longed for. He explains, “It’s a meeting place where I’ve had the opportunity to meet other faculty members — which wouldn’t have happened if I was just hanging out in my classroom. For example, David Schmittgens (we started working at Stevenson at the exact same time) would see me in there and before I knew it, we started chatting and developed a great friendship as a result.”
Schmittgens, whose office in Talbott is distressingly far from the lounge in Rosen, comments, “The vibe of the faculty lounge has changed quite a bit over the years. For most of my colleagues, the room is now basically a portal to the restrooms; there aren't many 'regulars' in the place who see it as a place to relax or socialize. I think that's largely due to the fact that many faculty members have other spaces they use during their free periods. Many of us live on campus, so a trip back to our houses during a break is an attractive alternative to listening to me and Mr. Bates playing clunky versions of 'Smoke on the Water' on the guitar.”
He continues, “Some faculty members have dogs they take out for a run, children they want to check up on, and other distractions. For the most part, the lounge is a place to pour a cup of coffee, make a copy of something, and then rush off to class.”
Art and French teacher Mr. Pratt adds, “We’re making this thing seem a lot more active than it really is. To be honest, it’s kinda dead. As Mr. Bates has pointed out, pre-pandemic with some of us old-dogs, it felt different. Something did change after the pandemic. Technology has changed; do we even use these mailboxes [located to the right of the entrance] anymore?”
Mr. Pratt takes onlookers on an inside tour of the kitchen. The coffee machine and refrigerator are one of the many highlights of the adaptive workplace.
Even science teacher Mr. Tretter, who rarely uses the lounge because of its inaccessibility from the science building, justly says, “The faculty have become a little fractured. We’re not getting to know each other these days. There’s been a lot of turnover in the last three years. Practically the entire language department is new…there’s not the level of camaraderie or faculty engagement today [especially after lockdown].”
With that said, what if the lounge was completely removed? It has felt like that is almost the case, but other teachers weigh in on whether there’s hope or the pandemic took it all.
“You do lose that community element. I know some schools don’t have that…even though I don’t necessarily go in there to socialize, not having it as an option would be a loss,” says Amy Jacobs, a history teacher who intermittently goes to the lounge for the coffee and the “soothing environment.”
Veteran college counselor Frank Stephenson notes, “Losing the faculty room would be a loss in terms of technical support. Teachers need class preparation spaces, copy machines, mailboxes, and bathrooms.” There are, in fact, two teacher-only restrooms located at the back of the room, a minor faculty perk.
Science teacher Mr. Provost responds, “If the faculty lounge was lost, it would be devastating. It is the only place where you can run across other faculty members and have a conversation that can't be interrupted by students — while it can be interrupted by other faculty; this is a nice combination.”
History teacher Dale Hinckley, who has seen the faculty lounge through its lows and highs in two campus buildings, chooses hope: “It’s funny how we crave each other’s companionship. If we [teachers] didn’t have some sort of communal space like that [with the lounge], it would really change the culture of the faculty…we would find other places to hang out. There used to be a large space in the math offices in upstairs Talbott, now we have the history office; those would acquire more value.” These aren't the same, he admits, “But they feel more private to an individual department.”
History-packed anecdotes dot the lounge. An outdated, yet not forgotten trading service unveils a blast from the past. On the coat rack to the left of the room, teachers would leave unwanted neckties up for trade and perhaps take one in turn. On the front table at the center lies a community collector, a spot where teachers leave whatever they want whenever. Occasionally, there is a box of donuts to brighten the day or homemade baked treats from Dr. Manspeaker.
Additionally, the legendary guitar plays a vital role in creating the mood of the place. “As for a favorite amenity, the coffee is nice, but I would say the guitar(s)," says Provost. "At some point someone put a guitar in the faculty room; for a while there were two and several faculty members play a little guitar, so often someone will pick it up and just start strumming. It is a little more subdued this year because I don't think anyone wants to disturb the admissions office, but it is a nice amenity.”
Hinckley adds, “The guitar has become part of the culture of the place. Once in a while I’ll pick up the guitar and start playing a blues tune and [David] Schmittgens will start inventing lyrics off the top of his head.” This may be because Schmittgens can’t play the guitar; as he says, “I'll pick up the guitar from time to time just to make sure I still cannot play it.”
Despite some feeling that the lounge is too small, lacks windows, and can feel “cave-like," it serves as a gateway to community. Hinckley concludes, “Without acknowledging it explicitly, we need a communal space where we can just hang out with each other. It’s more a part of the life of some teachers than of others — just as hanging out in Rosen is popular with some students and not others. Other students prefer to hang out on the foyer, the Learning Commons, or the dining hall.” One interesting positive result of the many power outages the campus has faced over this brutal storm season: faculty have come to love hanging out with one another, enjoying the giddy relief from storm-stressed routines — and treasuring the power, heat, and light the generator-equipped faculty room offers.
Schmittgens concludes, “What draws me to the lounge is tea and the relatively rare opportunities to socialize with colleagues. Sometimes I simply like to fix a cup of tea and settle myself in one of the chairs in order to gather my thoughts before the next class.”