Tuesday, July 28, 2015

What a hotel manager in Costa Rica taught me about being a teacher

I recently returned home from a glorious trip to Costa Rica with my husband. One of the places we traveled while there was the Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast. We stayed at a lovely, quirky hotel called La Mansion Inn. One of the best parts of staying at this hotel was the friendly, accommodating staff, especially the manager, Robert.

On our first full day at La Mansion, we spent a better part of an hour talking with Robert and he is quite the character. He's a "let me tell you a story" kind of a guy. And before you know it, one story turns into two, turns into twelve and now you've just spent over an hour listening to his life story, which is nothing short of fascinating. Robert is an old Italian guy from Brooklyn. If you want to try to picture him in your mind, think celebrity chef Robert Irvine but with a Brooklyn accent instead of a British accent. He used to be a very successful business man in New York, but guys he did business with? Let's just say he's lucky to still be alive today. He came to Costa Rica because 9/11 took such a toll on him that he couldn't handle the stress of the city anymore. Robert is one of those people every writer dreams of meeting because he's a character that is just begging to grace the pages of someone's work of fiction.

Robert's office was the hotel lobby, always making himself available to guests
But here is what Robert, a hotel manager in Costa Rica, taught me about how to be a better teacher. From all appearances, Robert didn't seem to have an office or desk. He sits at a coffee table in the lobby, waiting for guests to come sit down so he can chat with them, or he just makes himself available if they have questions. Every guest knows who Robert is and that they can come to him because he goes out of his way to talk to everyone and make them feel like they matter. This got me thinking about what I am doing or not doing in the classroom to be this accommodating to my students. Do I hide behind my desk, implying that the work I have to do there is more important than they are? Do I seek students out to find out what their needs are or do I just wait for them to come to me?

I know Katherine Sokolowski has written about getting rid of her teacher desk, and I like her reasoning behind it, but at the time, I still wasn't entirely convinced I was ready to do it. In fact, I'm still not entirely ready, for the simple fact that I share a classroom and I don't think it's fair to tell my teaching partner (who uses the space in the morning and I use it in the afternoon), "Hey, I want to get rid of this desk. What do you think about that?" But, even without actually physically removing the desk from the room, I can find ways to stop chaining myself to it when kids are working quietly (or not so quietly). I can make a commitment to immerse myself in the classroom space rather than holing myself up behind my desk. I can make sure to interact with students rather than always "taking a break" when I'm done "on stage." And I can plant a seed and encourage other teachers to stop using their desk as a crutch the way I have been.

So here's me planting a seed: I challenge all teachers -- and administrators! -- to really think about what the posture of sitting behind a desk says to students and staff. What could we do to better foster relationships if we made ourselves available in a shared space instead of our personal, "off-limits" space?  I am challenging myself to do this for the upcoming school year and I hope you will join me.

Slice of Life is brought to you by Two Writing Teachers


  1. Teachers really are all around us. Robert is a great inspiration - not only for making yourself available to others but for taking care of yourself (moving out of the stress of the city when he needed to). He embodies the idea of community we all strive to create in our classrooms and it's easy to see why you were so taken with him.
    I found out today that I may be changing grades for this year, and so changing classrooms. A perfect time to rethink the desk and design a classroom that encourages the openness Robert created. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I took my desk out a couple years ago and love it! I still use a table that is just big enough for my ELMO and computer, but mostly I am roaming. Just think of the space you will open up. I highly recommend it!

  3. How great that you met this wonderful person on your trip, and found that he showed such care for everyone. Everyone does things so differently, yet I imagine that your students still think you care about them. Do you have a 'living space' in your room, with a sofa, chairs, etc.? What I would do is sit there on the sofa with my notebook doing work, then inviting different students to come chat (confer) about certain work, reading, writing, etc. It was way more comfortable to me & a lot more relaxed too. Best wishes in your quest to do it different, Beth.

    1. I love it too, unfortunately since my classroom is also a computer lab, I can't make that happen right now, but one day if/when I have a different classroom, I definitely want a living space to happen.

  4. You are so right! I don't think I can give up my desk, but I can definitely sit in other parts of the room. I never thought of my desk as a forbidding place, but it is isolating. Thank you for the idea!

  5. What a great post - weaving a teaching lesson from Robert's example. The desk or not the desk - that is the question! I've been pondering this idea myself for the last couple years. I don't have a teaching partner excuse - I'm just not ready to get rid of my space. Ha. However, I can do more of what you're saying - not sitting behind it when students need me!

  6. I use the "teacher's desk" as place to keep supplies that the students have full access to get what they need. I also use the top as a place to house more of my book baskets. I use a student desk if I need to sit down and do something.

  7. Beth - I love your connections to Robert and I hope to meet him someday!
    One year, I was forced to keep a desk in my room. A wise colleague advised that I turn it so it is "flush" with the wall. That way, it could still be a place to work when students aren't with you, however, when students were present, I was out in the classroom with them. A few goals achieved - 1) I followed the rule I was given, 2) I didn't take up valuable learning "real estate" in the classroom with the desk and my stuff (putting it flush with the wall made 'teacher space' much smaller, and 3) the classroom belonged to all of us.
    Best of luck to you as you try this out this year!!

  8. I think you're right, Beth. It isn't about the furniture's presence, but your own. I'm sure that you will be more available and present, because you're holding yourself accountable by sharing your determination to do so. :-)