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With Regina Barreca

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The people I work with are like family. I dont mean this in a nice way.

I spend a whole lot of time with my colleagues as well as with my family. Families and schools are similar institutions.

This is where I should explain that I happen to believe the phrase dysfunctional family is redundant.

Show me a perfectly happy family and Ill show you how to change the channels on the set youre watching. But this doesnt mean I dont like my family -- or the collection of folks I see every day at work. After all, the most significant common denominator between the people you grew up with and the people you teach with is as follows: youre stuck with them. If all that close contact doesnt lead to actual revolution, then it usually leads to affection.

When facing families and educational communities, the individual must struggle to attain a sense of self-esteem within an established hierarchy; in both groups, you know youve made it when you can ask others to get off the phone when you need to speak to them. That, and people dont try to talk to you after youve gone into the bathroom and shut the door.

Dont misunderstand: I genuinely like all (okay, most; okay, some) of my colleagues. They are an eclectic bunch, along the lines of those old war movies where you can divide up the characters neatly by stereotype: The Kid, The Tough One, The Scared One, The Vaguely Psychotic One, and The One Who Never Thought of Heroism But Is A Hero. Every division gets allotted one of each type and if somebody new enters the fold it is imperative that they find their own unique designation, such as The One Who Whines Incessantly or The One Who Never Puts In Enough Money When You Go To Lunch And Split The Check. These are the business equivalents of familiar family members: The Aunt Who Criticizes Everything, The Cousin Who Gets In Trouble, The Smart Niece, The Loud Niece, and the Uncle Who Never Puts In Enough Money When You Go To Dinner And Split The Check.

The biggest difference between literal families and teachers-lounge families, however, is the fact that your co-worker family knows a great deal more about your life than anyone in your immediate biological family would ever dream of noticing. Every person in your office understands everything about you in molecular detail. Trust me.

They have observed -- and discussed with others -- such issues as: your current and previous weight, whether you got what you wanted for your birthday, whether or not you color your hair, wax your eyebrows, bite your cuticles, and whether you would like to conduct medical experiments on your supervisor. They know that you prefer tic tacs to Certs. They certainly know when youve been sleeping (and with whom); they know when youre awake. Theyre making a list and checking it twice. Theyre like Santa but without the presents.

And, lets face it, this is not one-sided. If I appeared on a game show where the prize was three years at the Ritz in Paris all expenses paid, I could not provide one-sixteenth the intimate details about my first-cousin that I could give about the colleague with whom I regularly have lunch. Splitting a grilled-chicken Caesar salad and knowing who gets the croutons promotes the kind of bonding that rarely occurs over a family-style Thanksgiving dinner.

This is because, in reality, family members arent the least bit interested in what you do for a living. They dont really want to hear whether you suspect that the entire French department actually mutated from a cross between space aliens and ferrets; they only want to know whether youre willing to drive Aunt Theresa home before she falls so deeply asleep shell need to be moved by a winch.

You have to watch how you frame your commentary at work because it just might happen that members of the French department will hear about your viewpoint and hold a meeting whereby they decide to rebut your argument by barricading you in the lounge area while holding your database hostage. As in every extended community, there is suspicion as well as esprit de corps, creepiness as well as camaraderie. Just as you wouldnt want your Aunt Theresa to hear the winch remark, you wouldnt want certain of your colleagues to hear that you believe they are not carbon-based life forms.

Finally, educational communities differ from the families youre born into insofar as you cant fire, or be fired by, your family. You can be laid off by your family, but you cant be made redundant. Most families also cannot offer 401K plans or provide the kind of health benefits we all expect in the year 2010 (Grandmas chicken soup excepted).

Otherwise they are exactly the same.

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Article by Regina Barreca
Education World®
Copyright© Education World

Updated 07/06/2010