Says Chef Weiner, it’s time to assess ourselves as role models to our students, who witness more than we realize. And a tragedy hits home that we must work to positively influence those in our charge while we have the opportunity.
By Adam Weiner, CFSE
From January through April I addressed how to teach your students recipe skills and basic cooking skills. In May I took a break and wrote about the importance of teaching real networking. In that article, I stated that I would pick up with cooking techniques this month.
Please forgive me, but I changed my mind. I decided that with the end of the school year for most of you it is timely to consider our position as role models.
It is important that we, as teachers, take a look at ourselves and realize our impact upon students—sometimes beyond anything that we imagine. Further, we have skills and talents observed by our students without our realizing it. In May 2012, “The Gold Medal Classroom” published my article on assessment. So, now at the end of the year, it is time to do an assessment of ourselves as role models.
For more than three years, I have been teaching one day a week at the honor camp for my county’s jail. (Yes, I give them knives. No, I have never had any issues. Yes, many of the inmates continue their training at my full-time program and go on to get great jobs.) Class size is supposed to be limited to 12, and most of the time I have a chef friend or current or former student volunteer to help me teach.
On May 1, 2013, there were 14 people in the class. I didn’t have the heart to ask two to return to their dorms. On this day, I didn’t have any assistants. To make matters more difficult, I had a record number of new students: seven. Of the remaining seven people, four had only been with me once and two had only been with me twice.
In other words, only one person really had any experience in the class. Most of the 14 had never cooked at home before! Furthermore, there are no demonstration stations in this kitchen.
We turned out four different chicken dishes, four different pork-chop dishes and four different pork-loin dishes. We also had several different desserts, Irish soda bread and a salad with a housemade vinaigrette. We had potato dishes and vegetables. Twenty one different items. We did all the cooking and cleaned everything before we ate. We started at 8:00 and began eating a little before noon!
After lunch, while the inmates were sweeping and mopping, I was rendered speechless. In nine years and nine months of teaching, I can’t recall that ever happening before. What prompted this was one of the inmates walking up to me, saying, “Chef, you are incredibly patient.” I was dumbfounded. If you asked 100 people who know me professionally (or socially for that matter) to each list 20 adjectives that describe me, the word “patient” would DEFINITELY not appear once.
What I realized is that students learn much more from culinary teachers than the technical skills we teach them. If you have read my articles fairly regularly, you know that I am a MAJOR believer in also teaching life skills and job skills. But beyond teaching technical skills, job skills and life skills, we are role models.
We hear that phrase a lot. We hear it so much that we forget it. What I learned that day is that we must be cognizant at all times that we are all role models every time we stand up in our classroom or our kitchen.
Sometimes life isn’t that smooth. A few days later, one of my regular students and I took a few photos joking around with bunny ears behind each other. Two days later, he was shot dead just months after his 21st birthday. He was walking home from work at 12:30 a.m., and apparently the target was one of the other people crossing the street.
I now was in the position of wondering what type of role model I had been for him, and at the same time had to be a role model for my remaining students. One of the things that I teach my students on their first day is that they should always cook with passion and serve each dish with pride. I explain, to really get the point across, that the meal they cook for someone might be their last. I reflected heavily on that at the young man’s funeral while sitting with all of my students.
We as teachers impact people daily. At the end of the school year we need to take a moment to be proud of that. Realize that just by being there we are making major impact on people’s lives.
Next month, I promise, back to cooking techniques.
Chef Adam Weiner, CFSE, teaches a 20-week Introduction to Cooking program for JobTrain on the San Francisco Peninsula.