Exploring PHS Department Dynamics

Elizabeth Long, Staff Writer

A group of friends take a trip to Donner Summit, soaking up the last bits of summer. They hang out, talk about work, make dinner, and have drinks; they do what all friends do. But this is not an average friend group, this is PHS’s Math department. 

“I rarely think about teachers when I’m not in school,” said sophomore Sonja Ten Grotenhuis.

This is not an uncommon sentiment; many students think that their teachers only exist at school. They think that their only purpose is to grade papers and assign homework. But to each other, they are the support system that gets them through the day. Teachers spend time between classes talking and laughing like any friends would, building strong and meaningful connections in the process.

The teachers in the Social Studies department in particular have been consistent for 20 years. Social studies teacher Gabrielle Kashani said that teachers in the department have been there for each other through good times and bad.

“We’ve gone through things together. Whether it’s the death of a parent, or the birth of a child, or illness, or major life events like COVID, we always provide support and connection,” Kashani said.

Kashani said that she has an especially close relationship with her colleague Allison Cota. 

“She’s the person I’ve spent the most time with outside of school,” Kashani said. 

The two teachers have been close friends for 20 years. Cota and Kashani are not the only close friends in their department. In fact, most social studies teachers eat lunch together in their department office.

“We eat in our office pretty much everyday, and whoever comes comes, and most days it’s many of us,” Kashani said. 

Sometimes other people join them, such as science teacher Shelley Seto and guidance counselor Ashley English, but in the social studies office there will always be someone to talk to, whether about academic endeavors or personal matters. 

“People are welcome to join us, so it’s not exclusive,” Kashani said. 

While most teachers in the department are located in the 20s building, one teacher is tucked away. Social studies teacher Hayley Adams’ classroom is located on the first floor of the 30s building, separating her from the rest of her department. 

“I always feel really isolated from everybody because it’s just us here in the basement and no one really comes down here,” said Adams.

Despite being physically separated from her department, Adams still feels part of the group.

“We sometimes go to dinners, or we go to talks together. There was a party for me when I got engaged, which was really nice,” Adams said. 

Many departments have new members each year, but the Social Studies department has kept their circle mostly the same.

“We feel like we’ve got a solid core group that hasn’t felt like we’ve had any major changes,” Kashani said. 

While the Social Studies department has had the same staff year after year, the Math department is on the other side of the spectrum. Each year they have a few new teachers, and a few that have to say goodbye. But despite all of this, the department stays connected.

Before the 2022-23 school year began, members of the department went on a retreat to math teacher Auban Willats’ cabin in Donner Summit.

“We made some kind of stew, and we enjoyed beverages. There’s a lake there. It just kind of felt like a mini vacation,” said math teacher Sam Colburn.

The Math department has had lots of turnover, last year losing two teachers which were then replaced at the start of the semester. Despite being new to PHS, these new teachers have been welcomed as if they were old friends. 

“Ms. Porreca is right next door, I talk to her everyday,” Colburn said. “Mr. Ruby is all the way down on the first floor, but [Palsa] keeps him entertained.”

“Most of my time is spent with the math department, and people on the third floor…They have been very welcoming,” said math teacher Camille Porecca. 

Although she is connecting with her department, Porreca does not have much crossover with staff from other departments. 

“I don’t have as many meetings with cross-disciplinary teachers, so I don’t know them as well,” Porreca said.

On the other side of school sits the English department, which follows this pattern of close friendship within the department.

The English department spends time outside of school playing scrabble and also talking about their favorite books. Teachers in the department also used to meet up outside of school to eat breakfast and talk about their favorite existential writer; Franz Kafka.

“The Franz Kafka Breakfast Club was one of my favorite things ever. We would go have breakfast together and talk about Kafka,” said English and film teacher Mercedes Foster.

However, while in school, some of the English department feels disconnected from other departments.

“All the departments feel really segregated. Math tends to just hang out with math, science hangs out with science, foreign language hangs out with foreign language,” Adams said. 

In the way that the new buildings have been structured, departments rarely intermix with each other because they don’t physically see each other.

“Ms. Willats and I are buddies. But Ms. Willats is so far away, I never see her during the school day. We’ve been working in the same place, I just never see her,” said Foster. 

“People used to go and really hang out in the copy room, but now there are more copyers, so there’s fewer places for people to meet and organically hang out with,” Adams said. 

Not communicating with other teachers is not the only issue that this phenomenon has damaged. Adams believes that this is affecting students as well.

“If teachers would talk more, we would be more united on policies, such as tardiness and late work. It would help students, like if I knew Mr. Savage had a really big test on Tuesday, then I wouldn’t put an essay also due that day. I also think that teacher spirit would be higher,” Adams said. 

Even though Adams is in the basement, she still has Foster to keep her company, acting as the lighthearted friendship that is needed to get them through the long day. 

The camaraderie created from little moments between periods, or during quick trips to Donner Summit, or during breakfast book clubs, are the moments that create lifelong friends.