Canteen duty is something that can be dreaded for a number of reasons, but for me it is often the pathos of that twenty minutes. For surely there is nowhere else around the school where is it possible to observe the hard time that some children go through. The saddest type of child I see is the Little Loner.
In lessons, the Little Loner is identifiable by their reluctance to join in group work. I combat this by sorting pupils into groups myself rather than letting them choose their own groups, and of course the benefits of this reach farther than simply inclusion of a shy or unpopular child.
The Little Loner will sit away from other children if possible, and is usually quiet, but often knows all the answers; however previous experience has taught the L.L. that you don’t earn kudos from your class mates by doing what the teacher wants. The L.L. therefore often retreats into a shell, but some of them are not actually aware of other children’s sniggers and persist in shooting up their hand at every opportunity.
I suggest if you have a keen Little Loner in your class, you move away from asking for “hands up”. One way to do this is to write each class member’s name on a card, and choose a card from the pack when you want somebody to tell you something. Or if your funding stretches to mini whiteboards, these are even better. Even disaffected pupils love to scrawl with a board pen on the slippery surface, and not only do you have every pupil (more) on task, but you also succeed in letting your keen Little Loner answer without fear of ridicule.
But back to the canteen. It’s all very well thinking of ways to include the L.L. in your lessons. And for the majority of lunchtimes most schools have refuges for L.L.s: lunchtime clubs like chess, Warhammer or maths puzzles, where they are no longer alone, but in the company of those who also avoid the harsh world of the playground. L.L.s are usually well known to the school librarian, as they settle down into their usual spot to read or surf the web. But even L.L.s have to eat…
It’s funny (peculiar not haha). Teaching has toughened me up so much. When I set out I was a bleeding heart who took seriously every bleat of “he’s bullying me”, and spent weekends worrying about something a child mentioned in passing. But when you meet about 180 children every day (form group plus five average teaching groups) it’s as much as you can do sometimes to even remember everyone’s name. (Seven weeks into the year and I still don’t know at least half of the pupils I teach.)
Yet nothing tugs at my remaining heart-strings as much as seeing the Little Loner eating a solitary snack or lunch in the canteen. Often it’s a case of a packed-lunch-pupil who can sit straight down without the tussle of the canteen queue, and it’s not long before they’re joined by some friends.
But sometimes packed-lunch-pupil dines alone on the healthy contents of their Tupperware box, and I have been wondering if there’s a correlation between the type of child who brings in a packed lunch and the probability that child will be more of a loner. Maybe there’s camaraderie to be had in the long queues to reach the canteen counter, or maybe the pushing and shoving toughens up children somewhat. (I could take this one further and wonder if having school dinners makes you more successful at getting served in pubs in later life… maybe there’s a PhD study in there somewhere.)
But even canteen-queue-child can be a Little Loner. On duty in the canteen I may recognise a pupil from my lesson, nervously focused on her slice of healthy canteen pizza, or his Tupperware pot of tuna pasta or sliced peppers and hummus; they’re the children not daring to look around, and trying to block out the din and clatter going on just beyond the half metre radius that constitutes the “no go” zone around them. I’ve learnt from experience that the worst thing to do is give a sympathetic little smile. This works well in the corridors, when you may well be the first person to smile at Little Loner that day, as you both escape rapidly into the swarm of noisy pupils. But in the canteen, smiling at a L.L. is tantamount to flashing a spotlight onto their seat and superimposing a bullseye onto their forehead. And the L.L. knows this.
There have been so many times when I’ve wanted to match-make between lonely pupils who I think would enjoy each others’ company. “Rosie, meet Emma, who also likes reading, and has two guinea-pigs as well!” And some schools have “buddy” systems that aim to do just this. But in the canteen, it just doesn’t work. Instead, the Little Loners sit at their separate tables, heads down until the deed is done and they can scuttle off to some sanctuary elsewhere. And it just seems to me the saddest thing for them to eat alone every day, in the midst of all the organised chaos of the canteen.
And then my duty is over, and I scuttle off back to my classroom, to unwrap the foil from around my sandwiches and mark books as I munch… alone...