Is Your School Living Up to Its Mission? Look No Further Than the Cafeteria

After visiting hundreds of schools over the years, I can usually tell you the values of a school in a single day, and I don’t even need to sit in on a class (although that helps). I will just show up thirty minutes before the day starts and begin observing until students head home in the evening. I don’t need to talk to anyone or read anything. By what I see in that one day, the values of the community will be evident. They shout from wall and halls. But what if I only had an hour at the school? In that case, I’d pick lunchtime.

While not as good as a full day of observation, I can get a good sense of the extent to which a school truly embraces its mission and values during that single hour. Look at the cafeteria, the food service, and what happens during meals. Do you see the values and mission embodied in the quality of the food, how it is prepared and served, the nature of the conversation, the tone, and what happens among the students?

This might sounds strange at first, but looking at areas like the cafeteria gives us a glimpse into the extent to which the mission and values truly permeate all parts of the learning community.

Consider a couple examples.

Imagine you are at a school that claims to be learner-centered. Then you go to the cafeteria and witness a fast food style service. The quality of the food is poor. People who serve it seem to hate their jobs. It is set up like a factory. If you have allergies or special needs, you are on your own. At best, it is a clean but transactional experience. When students are not happy with the service or complain abut the low quality, administration and staff just dismiss it saying that students always hate cafeteria food.

Compare that to another school that boasts of the same learner-centered value. Then go to their cafeteria, which they call a dining hall. Food is fresh and high quality, maybe even prioritizing locally sourced options. Meals take into consideration the needs and preferences of different people. The kitchen staff find time to walk around and talk to the students. Along the way, they learn about student’s favorite foods, their goals, their struggles. Staff learner the names of students and greet them when they arrive. Sometimes the kitchen staff members surprise a student with a special meal or option, just for them.

The staff members are constantly exploring ways to turn the dining hall into a place where people are cared for and are welcome. “Food is about so much more than food,” they explain with a grin of well-earned pride. There might be the occasional dissatisfied student, but in general, people love the food and talk about how great it feels to be cared for in this way. And that dissatisfied student is not disregard or ignored.

Or, another school might manifest its learner-centered values by the learners being directly involved in the decisions about the dining hall, or even joining in the work. I’m not talking about simple work study roles, but where students see themselves as co-owners of the dining hall, taking pride in how they are creating a great community and place for their co-learners to eat and enjoy fellowship with each other.

Schools are communities with a mission and values. The more that the mission and values truly shape every part of the community, the more inspiring and transformational that community becomes. That is why aspects like the food service can be a useful check. From there, we can go on to look at how we approach facilities maintenance, cleaning and care for the space, decorating and designing the space, our rituals and practices for communication, what we publicly celebrate and elevate, and more.

After all, if we can’t get our values right on matters like the dining hall, how can we possibly expect them to happen in the rest of the learning experience?

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