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We Are Our Best Resource: Reimagining the Staff Lounge

By Eloïse Engel
We Are Our Best Resource: Reimagining the Staff Lounge

Staff room before. Staff room after. _________________________________________________________________________ Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” and it is with this in mind that we recently took action at our school. Harare International School (HIS) in Zimbabwe has one of most beautiful campuses I’ve ever seen: acres of lush green grounds; quaint, meandering pathways; exquisitely manicured gardens; and big, bright classrooms. It’s an educator’s dream; however, the staff room looked like something from an industrial worksite. Imagine a cold, dark space with beige walls, a collection of metal chairs with plastic covered seats surrounding two dilapidated tables, teacher mailboxes crammed full of paper overflowing onto the floor, and a copier loud enough to raise the dead. Only the bravest dared venture into the room during break to grab a tea or coffee, before rushing out to the terrace to escape the sadness of the so-called staff room. For years, teachers talked about redoing the room, but as in many schools, everyone got busy with other pursuits and nothing ever happened. Last year, I led a workshop at the International Community School of Abidjan (ICSA). During break time, the teachers invited me to join them in their staff room. I was blown away by its warmth—bright colors and bright pictures, tables set up to encourage collaboration, comfy couches, and messages of encouragement adorning the walls. Having grown tired of their drab staff room, the ICSA instructors transformed it into a place of peace and tranquility. I felt inspired by their enthusiasm and pride, an inspiration I took back to Harare. And so it started. A committee was formed and soon plans were drawn up to create an inclusive environment where all staff members could socialize, work, rest, and recharge. The only challenge to our project: no money. The lack of funds didn’t dampen our drive. We were convinced we could redo our staff room, soliciting donations from within the school and from the local community. Furniture, mirrors, plants, curtains, and financial support flowed in. The level of support was touching, but we still didn’t have enough to make the dream a reality. One of our top priorities was repainting the walls, which seems like an easy enough task, unless you happen to live in Zimbabwe. Because the country manufactures little, most products—including paint—must be imported. That requires hard currency, a commodity almost nonexistent in the African nation. There are alternatives, all of which caused the price of the paint we needed to skyrocket to US$426. That’s money we just didn’t have. At this point, we turned to our Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), which responded financially, but more importantly, members offered their time, ideas, creativity, energy, and patience. Working together, parents and teachers organized bake sales. Other volunteers flew to neighboring South Africa to buy cheaper materials, while additional parents bargained for lamp shades they found on the side of the road. A local carpenter even built pallet furniture for free because he said he believed teaching is one of the most important professions in the world, and he wanted to be part of the project. For several days, the school’s support staff donated their time bringing the vision to fruition, and, finally, our art teacher and her partner donated stunning paintings and photographs to turn the room into something that no one could ever have imagined. Thanks to our wonderful school and local community, a new staff room was born. Everything came together perfectly. The amazement and appreciation of everyone was indescribable. Six months after the project began, we celebrated our community effort with a potluck ribbon-cutting ceremony. PTO members, teachers, support staff, administrators, artists, carpenters, and everyone else that was involved in the project attended. The most gratifying aspect of the gathering was seeing that Harare International School truly is a family whose members took action and worked together to achieve a goal. A slogan is mounted on the wall of the staff room, just inside the entrance: “We are our best resource.” It is a reminder of how something amazing can be created if everybody participates. We were the change that we wanted to see in the world, and we did it, even though our pockets were almost empty. Eloïse Engel is currently the instructional coach, head of modern languages, and a PYP teacher at Harare International School in Zimbabwe.

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