Teacher likes to eat alone, but misses out when coworkers talk shop at lunch

Q: As teachers, we all have students who eat lunch alone. They’d rather get lost in a book or stare at a wall than talk with their peers. We worry about them and want them to be more socialized. But wait! I think I am that person as an adult! When it comes to lunch time, I’d much rather eat in my classroom than be with my colleagues. I’m with people at all times of the day, and I find that I need to energize with some alone time. I’m also a pretty private person, and I like to keep my personal life personal. I have plenty of friends outside of work, and that’s enough for me. Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many instances where coworkers become too entangled, and then they have a falling out over gossip, pettiness or a misunderstanding. I’ve seen it happen with people in my own department. They’re not the most sensitive bunch. People have been badly hurt, and I see no need to go there. The problem is that my colleagues eat together, and even though it isn’t a designated department time, they inevitably wind up discussing business. I’m missing out on an exchange of ideas and other important information that the department chair shares at that time. How can I find a good balance between meeting my own personal needs with meeting my professional needs?

A: What’s interesting about your question is that it has two parts. On the one hand, you’re a private introvert. If that was the only impediment to joining your coworkers for lunch, I’d focus on helping you find other times to recharge. For example, you could take a short walk and join your department toward the end of lunch. Or you could periodically use a planning period to read a book so socializing at lunch felt less onerous.

In this case, however, you clearly have another reason to avoid lunch with these colleagues. You don’t trust them, and it feels protective to build in some distance. You’ve seen people get burned, and you don’t want that to happen to you. Those might be good instincts, and I wouldn’t entirely dismiss them. If you’re not lonely, there’s nothing inherently wrong with keeping to yourself. That said, you’ve identified the downside. You’re missing out on a critical exchange of information. You’re not in the loop on decisions that impact you. You’re also isolating yourself. That may feel protective, but it also makes you vulnerable.

I would tackle this in a few ways. Identify the person in your department with whom you feel the most comfortable. Make an effort to connect with that person. Maybe you stop into their classroom toward the beginning of the day when you feel most energized. He or she can function as your “goodwill ambassador.” If your coworkers are turned off or insensitive to your needs because you seem standoffish, this is the person who can communicate that you’re simply introverted. No good will come from them thinking you dislike them and actively don’t want to be friends. Better that they think you’re a bit quirky. This person also can make a point of interjecting when lunch becomes an impromptu brainstorming session. They can suggest pausing to invite you to join them, or recommend shelving the conversation until the next department meeting.

I also would express your concerns directly to the head of your department. I’d be realistic. You could say you know that some business will be conducted over lunch, but that you’d like a chance to weigh in on decision-making. When ideas are discussed, perhaps the department head could jot down some notes and make a point of relaying them to you. Simply making him or her aware of your concern might be helpful. If that conversation goes well, you might even find the idea of eating lunch with them on occasion slightly more palatable.

Even if you don’t have the desire to join the people in your department for lunch, consider getting to know a few individuals from other parts of the school. You could spend time with staff who play very different roles. That might be the billing specialist or the testing coordinator or the speech pathologist. Your day-to-day life is unlikely to be impacted if the relationship fizzles, and you might feel more comfortable pursuing these lower-stakes relationships. You’ll also feel more of a sense of belonging at work.

As for your own department, the situation sounds loaded. Ideally, you could repair some of that lost trust as a group, but that’s a whole other column. In the meantime, it’s possible to maintain some emotional distance without completely pulling away. Work to keep the lines of communication open, share your needs, compromise on occasion, maintain realistic expectations and branch out to others in the school. Everyone needs at least one friend in the building, including teachers.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.

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