There is a famous line from the Broadway musical “The King and I” which any teacher over 40 years old knows by heart: “When you become a teacher, from your pupils you will be taught.” Recently, I discovered the corollary: “When you become a student again, from your teachers you will be taught.” What you will learn is far beyond the subject matter of what you are being taught. What you will learn is how to be a better teacher for your students.
In last month’s article, Don't Cook With Tunnel Vision, I wrote about how I was taking a concert band class and how I also take private clarinet lessons a few times a month. I referred to my non-culinary class structure in that article: “I have learned an amazing number of things from this experience that I incorporate into my day-to-day teaching.”
We all take continuing education classes on how to teach, and more particularly how to teach culinary arts. These are good, and I strongly endorse and support them. For example, for nearly 10 years I have gone to all the CAFÉ Leadership Conferences, including this year’s conference in Milwaukee. I go to ACF classes as well.
There is also something very revealing in switching roles by becoming a student in a non-teaching, non-food class. When I first started playing clarinet again after a nearly 40 year absence, I did not think that what I learned in concert band at the college and my private lessons would make me a better teacher, but they have.
Here are a few of the lessons I learned.
- In spite of knowing the clear importance of practicing drills (for example scales and arpeggios) doing so is tedious. To really make myself do it, I had to promise that at the end of the drills I would play something I really liked. How often do you just have your students do drills like knife skills or academic work, without any “fun” cooking involved?
- I learned that making things too difficult was a turnoff. This past semester all the pieces in the symphonic band were above my head. Sometimes it was just sections, sometimes it was the whole piece. I tried diligently at the beginning to practice. I would work on sections again and again and again. A few I was able to play but never master. Other sections I never got to the point that I could play them at tempo. I am ashamed to admit that about half-way through the semester I gave up practicing them. I worked on other things. I didn’t want to keep beating myself up on the parts that I clearly wasn’t going to be able to play. To be candid, I just gave up practicing these sections. What I learned is that if things are too difficult for the student the student will just give up trying. (Of course, different people have different abilities in a clarinet section of a symphonic band or in a culinary class. The hard part for the teacher is to figure out what is the correct level for each student and see what can be done to accommodate that level.)
- Mixing it up is important. I had the privilege last fall to practice and play with a community college symphonic band in Hawaii. I had the opposite problem in that the pieces were easy. I practiced them briefly, mastered them, and had fun playing them with the group. However, I admit I would get bored if I played with that group full time.
My private instructor, Ms. Lynne Funkhouser, does a good job of mixing it up. She has me do finger preparation exercises (easy but tedious), an appropriate level performance piece (not too easy but the difficult parts can be mastered with time and practice) and classical style pieces that are challenging but can be played with moderate practice. She also has me do scales and arpeggios from an 1800’s composer who I refer to as “The Evil One.” The difficult exercises take a lot of time and effort to work through. Finally, she also encourages me to play pieces just for the darn fun of it, like Broadway show tunes. I never play those for her, but she encourages me to play them at home just to have fun.
- Watching someone else is fun and educational. How often do we encourage our students to eat out? Do you assign extra credit for eating out and doing a brief write up? Do you take the time to listen to students talk about their dining out experiences? Do you let them share their experiences with the class? Music students are strongly encouraged to watch classmates perform with other groups and attend local performances. I found it fun watching someone else do the heavy lifting of having to perform difficult pieces in front of an audience. I watched and heard a variety of playing and music styles. I went home and tried practicing some styles and types of music I never really thought of playing before.
- Don’t forget to teach the students to have fun. I have written many articles for the Gold Medal Classroom and other publications on cooking with passion and pride. Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in teaching our students skills, techniques, recipes, science, and production we forget to let them show off their passion and pride. We forget to let them have fun.
I’m not talking about mayhem in the kitchen classroom. I am talking about remembering and reminding students they need to have fun and enjoy what they do. About half way through this past semester of these difficult pieces, my private instructor Lynne started chiding me in a friendly way: “Don’t be so tense.” “Sit back and relax when you play.” “Enjoy what you are playing.” “Sit back and let the piece flow.” “Quit slamming your fingers down on the keys.” She repeatedly reminded me I was in band, taking lessons and practicing to have fun. I was getting so tense and worked up that, not only was I not having fun, but my playing was suffering.
To be candid, when she told me these things I got a bit perturbed. I was paying her a lot of money for an hour of what I, at first, thought was not going to help in any way. Surprisingly, I took her advice. For several weeks I didn’t practice any of the band music. I didn’t practice any of the difficult scales or pieces she assigned me. I practiced on easy and moderate pieces that were fun. I found myself craving to play the hard pieces, and when I did return to them I found I could play them much better because I was centered on relaxing and enjoying the fun of playing.
I brought this lesson into my classroom by occasionally letting students just have free cooking time. I would tell them what ingredients were off limits (and I would try to keep these to a minimum) and just let them go at it. I would work very hard not to critique the food, which is blasphemous for a culinary instructor. The only time I would become involved was if there was a food safety or kitchen safety issue. The students loved it, and interestingly every time I did this they would challenge themselves more.
- The most interesting thing I observed in my time as a music student is that, like our culinary students, we don’t want to give up our bad habits and do it the way we are now being taught. I don’t like to practice with a metronome. Every lesson Lynne asks me if I am using a metronome and I grumble. She tells me I am wasting practice time if I don’t use one. How often do we teach our students how to do something—let’s say cut an onion in the correct fashion—and the next time we see them doing that task, they do it in their own incorrect way? I found this upsetting. I would impatiently ask them, “Why don’t you do it the way I showed you?” I realize old habits are hard to beat. My wife and I are addicted to the TV show “Big Bang Theory.” In one episode, Penny is teaching acting to Sheldon and says, “Let’s get you out of your comfort zone.” He retorts, “Why would I want to do that. It’s called a comfort zone for a reason.” Before I started being a student myself, I thought this was hysterical. Now I realize that for my students—and myself—it is very difficult to get out of your comfort zone because you so much like being in that zone.
In summary, what I recommend is that over the summer or during the school year you take a class in something not related to the culinary field. It can be a history class, an environmental science class, a literature class or an art class. The important thing is to take something you want to take, and then sit back and learn again what it is like to be a student. When you become a student from your teacher you will be taught how to be a better teacher.
This article is dedicated to Ms. Lynne Funkhouser, who has been teaching clarinet and saxophone for over 30 years. What she has taught me in my clarinet lessons has made me a far better culinary arts instructor.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula, and is a frequent presenter at CAFÉ events throughout the nation. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Antonin Carême Medal.