by Kim Allsup
My teaching bag of tricks is full of stories, lots of stories— biographies that are a window into history, stories to teach the alphabet, stories that break down the complexity of a math process and metaphoric stories such as parables and fables that spark thinking.
My students are used to stories that take them on a journey that appears to bring them far away from our main theme, into a tale that is not so much a segue as a secret route to the heart of the topic.
Stories can be especially effective when students are stuck, when a concept is difficult or complex, when the kids just don’t get it. At this moment in our culture we are collectively stuck when it comes to making decisions about the future of education. My perspective as a teacher is that most people just don’t get why standards and testing wastes the talent, inspiration and joy that our nations teachers are ready and able to bring to children while teaching them well.
I tend to bring my teaching practices in to my writing. My memoir, A Gift of Wonder, A True Story Showing School as it Should Be, uses the story of my journey as a rookie teacher to show the value of responsible freedom in teaching. The story I share here, however, is not based on actual events but is a parable, a metaphor. It is about someone seeking their first job, looking at a range of options. In the story the job seeker is a newly-trained chef named Amanda. The options before her are restaurants that, unbelievably, do not have kitchens. Amanda’s options are a metaphor for the perplexing options facing all new teachers in the US.
The Restaurant Without A Kitchen
It was my friend Amy who convinced me to look for a job at Mega. “Amanda,”she said, “It’s an enormous office park. They are always advertising for new new chefs. ”
So I drove through miles of farm country for a tour and an interview with Jorge from Central Employment.
“When they built Mega so far from town there was a plan to build a village,” he said. “Once it’s built there will be restaurants, and most of the employees will eat there. They protect their future restaurant businesses with language in the leases that says nobody can have a kitchen. So, no kitchens.”
“You know I’m a chef, right?” I asked, wondering why I had driven so far to tour an office park with no kitchens.
“Oh don’t worry, Amanda,” he said, as we started walking down a long hallway. “We have lots of jobs for chefs. The companies have been very clever in providing food to their employees without having on-site kitchens. They allow eating rooms but no kitchens.”
“Here’s a good example,” he said as we entered a cafeteria. “Most of our companies get their food from NMS. That’s Nutrition Management Systems. It comes off the trucks every morning, a standardized menu, pre-packaged and ready to eat. The food is free to employees, funded by a government program that promotes proper nutrition. See those employees checking out? That machine is not a cash register. It ’s a tracker that evaluates everything taken by each employee and provides a score. It keeps your monthly nutrition score and tells you what you have to add to make a balanced meal. Watch that guy leaving the line and walking over to salads. He’s not allowed to check out without a green vegetable.’
“Here’s a chef now.” said Jorge as a man approached us wearing the tall white hat of our trade. “Michael, can you tell us what a chef does when your food comes from NMS?”
Michael shook my hand and said, “It’s all about friendliness and presentation. At some of the companies the chefs leave the food in the containers it comes in. Not here. We transfer everything to plates. I bring in a bit of parsley to dress it up. I help people run the microwaves so their food is hot but not too hot. We play music to create a pleasant mood. We have dietitians to help people with conditions like diabetes and I make sure I have menu options for every condition on the staff. We reward good nutrition in many ways from shiny stickers for those who make good choices to posting pictures of our nutrition stars of the month. But more and more NMS wants me to track the details of each nutritional element for each employee. That’s the work I take home at night.”
Next Jorge led me to the hallway and out across a courtyard. We’ll peek in the eating room at this brown bag company. “No chef jobs here,” he said. “They all bring lunches from home.” Here employees sat outside at picnic tables and in the adjoining, sunny rooms.
“I take a lot of prospective employees on tours. Increasingly I get employees from NMS companies wanting to transfer to a brown bag company because they want the freedom to eat whatever they want even if they do have to bring it from home.”
Entering a low building with brightly painted hallways, I smelled what I guessed to be Italian food. And, sure enough, the eating room buffet featured lasagna that looked and smelled like food from a real restaurant. Jorge said, “Take a plate and serve yourself. The chef here offered us lunch.”
Soon we sat at a table eating five star lasagna, fresh bread and amazing salad.
“I thought you said there were no kitchens.” I remarked.
“That’s right,” said their chef, overhearing our conversation and joining us at the table. “No kitchen. I cook everything at home. I have a passion for creating irresistible recipes. I prepare the meals the night before and drive everything here in a truck with warming ovens and then I set up the dining area. It’s a ton of work, but the employees appreciate my efforts and often ask for the recipes. We don’t track nutrition here, but I plan meals that are highly nutritious and taste great. I also pay attention to what the employees like. Everyone likes the food so much, I’m sure they get as good or better nutrition than they would from NMS. It takes me most of the afternoon to clean up, then, on the way home, I shop for fresh produce and begin cooking soon after I pull in my driveway.”
“It sounds like you work all day and all night,” I said, incredulous.
“I don’t work more than the NMS chefs,” he said, “But their evening work includes nutrition management. They record each employee’s lunch scores and nutrition data. I’d rather cook at night than crunch numbers. I believe that inspiration is more powerful than management.”
My head was spinning. My training had not prepared me to cook all evening after a long day of work nor to spend my free time crunching numbers. I wasn’t feeling very positive about the idea of a restaurant without a kitchen.
“Next we’ll peek into eating rooms at hybrid companies where lunch comes mostly from NMS but is supplemented by food from home-based kitchens.”
“So the chefs have to both crunch numbers and prepare meals each evening?” I asked.
“Strangely,” he said as we looked through windows into pleasant eating rooms, “even though these chefs work incredibly long hours, they are more likely to stay at their jobs than the NMS chefs who don’t cook at home. Overall, the more a chef gets to actually prepare meals from scratch, the longer she stays at her job.”
“Let’s head over to my office for the interview,” said Jorge. It won’t take long. I just need to see your chef school certificate and hear which companies you want to visit as a finalist.”
“ But what about those three huge buildings that we didn’t visit,” I said pointing down the road.
“ My guess is you want to skip these,” he said. “Remember the NMS chef who said some companies don’t even unpack the food. He was talking about those companies. They are all big operations where most of the workers make minimum wage. Each chef has to deliver food to hundreds of employees and also track their nutrition. There’s a lot of food waste because folks put food on their tray just to meet the requirements. They don’t even plan to eat all of it. They just want to get through the tracker machines without getting sent back. On a twenty minute lunch break there isn’t time to go back for a salad. Whatever they don’t eat just goes right in the trash still in the plastic pods. I’ve learned that chefs like you, who ask a lot of questions, don’t last more than a week.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes. The options presented to me were a lot to take in. I was a trained chef looking for my first job. I had imagined experimenting with recipes, making creative meals. But these chef jobs were bizarre. I could not imagine myself making a neat presentation of packaged food with a little parsley and muzak on the side followed by the take home paperwork of a food cop. Serving my homemade lasagna to eager eaters looked much closer to the future I had trained for. But would I be able to cope with devoting my evenings to cooking in my own kitchen instead of having a personal life? The idea of being a hybrid chef who both prepares meals and crunches numbers each night made me feel overwhelmed and tired.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” said Jorge as we entered his office, “Many chefs in the NMS companies secretly do some cooking at home even though they don’t work for a company that is officially a hybrid. They would get in trouble if their bosses knew, but I guess you can’t stop a chef from cooking.”
He paused, then asked, “So, where do you want to interview?’
“I’ll get back to you.” I said. “I’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”
As I drove home, I realized that Mega’s daily, full page advertisements should have alerted me that they have problems attracting and keeping chefs. I decided to withdraw my application. I mean, really, what serious professional would accept employment in a workplace that did not provide a time and place to prepare?
My 22 years as a classroom teacher resembled the life of a of a home-based chef. Like the home-based chef in the story, I prepared each evening for the following day. Just as a meal is more attractive when the ingredients are fresh, when a combination of flavors, herbs and spices are appetizing, a lesson is more engaging when it is fresh, and flavored with drama, humor, intrigue, music, artistic experience and allows for meaningful conversation. When diners are attracted to a meal that looks good, smells good and tastes good, they are, in the words of psychologists, intrinsically motivated to eat it. Similarly, when students are intrinsically motivated, they engage deeply in a lesson because they enjoy it, not because they want a good grade.
Like the home-based chef in the story, I believe that inspiration is more powerful than management. When preparing a lesson I spend as much time generating ways to elicit a laugh, a moment of wonder, surprise or intrigue as I devote to thinking about the kernel of the knowledge that is the supposed takeaway. And, when I hang the concept or kernel of knowledge on the scaffold of a story, I find that helping the class to assimilate key facts is almost effortless. And I wonder, how can it be that Hollywood and every advertising executive understands the power of stories, but those who determine the future of education have no clue that a good teaching story told expressively by a live teacher is more valuable than ten chapters in a boring textbook.
It is a rare school in the United States that offers teachers the freedom to design their own lessons and to change them spontaneously to meet the needs of the moment. Most schools in our country are like NMS companies. In these schools the standards and testing movement rules. In my own state, Massachusetts, this movement began in the 1990s. Then, in the new millennium, national laws, No Child Left Behind (2002), Race to the Top (2009), and Every Child Succeeds Act (2015) tied school progress, as defined by testing, to federal funding. The Common Core State Standards, rolled out in 2010, had been adopted by 42 states by 2015. Those states which have not adopted the Common Core have their own similar programs. Almost all states now require their public school districts to adopt the education equivalent of NMS by utilizing Common Core standards and administering standardized tests. At most of these schools , using extrinsic motivation to get results is part of the accepted practice of teachers. This is the motivation to work for a grade, a test score, for praise and recognition.
One might imagine that a hybrid school, like the hybrid company combines the best of both worlds. Doesn’t it make sense that encouraging a student to be self motivated and then backing that up with rewards would lead to sure success? Not necessarily. A fascinating study of 10,000 West Point graduates over ten years showed, in their own words, that “multiple types of motives don’t multiply the motivation of West Point cadets.” They found that cadets whose motivation was a combination of their own interest in the work and a wish for rewards found less career success than those were motivated purely by their interest in their work. Based on this study it seems that encouraging any student interest in rewards in the form of grades or praise may actually hinder success.
The brown bag companies are, of course, the equivalent of home schooling. The number of children being home schooled is growing by as much as 8 percent per year. Like the brown bag employees in the parable who want to choose what they eat, home schooling parents want to choose what their children learn.
Take a moment to consider the parable from the viewpoint of the employee. Which lunch program would you prefer: 1) a home cooked meal based on good nutritional guidelines, 2) a subsidized, industrially packaged meal with enforced mandatory nutrition, 3) a hybrid subsidized meal with the same requirements supplemented with some occasional home cooking? Or, would you prefer to bring your own lunch? And, which educational approach would you prefer for your child: 1) lessons taught by a teacher who creates good, inspirational lessons, 2) lessons taught by teachers who deliver a pre-packaged curriculum 3) lessons that are primarily standardized but are supplemented with some original content created by the teacher? Or would you prefer to home school you children?
I’m guessing that many parents who would choose a home cooked meal for their own lunch, would not choose home cooked lessons for their child’s education. My hunch is that many may want the security of the packaged approach even if it is bland, lacking inspiration and relies on questionable motivational techniques. This is because teachers are not trusted in our culture. We have much work to do before teachers are as trusted as chefs.
Once we are able to trust teachers we need to treat them like other professionals. Chefs, lawyers, accountants, nurses, doctors, scientists, engineers, pharmacists, architects are, like teachers, professionals who prepare work and then deliver it. A lawyer researches a case and and then goes to court. An accountant prepares a tax documents and reviews them with a client. A nurse organizes medications and then delivers them to patients. A doctor reviews lab results, plans a treatment strategy and then meets with a patient. A scientist organizes a research expedition, travels to collect data, analyzes results and then delivers a presentation. A pharmacist fills a prescription and then meets with a customer to answer questions. A teacher researches and plans a lesson and then delivers it to her students. However, chefs, lawyers, accountants, nurses, doctors, scientists, engineers, pharmacists and architects do most of their planning, preparing, and strategizing on the job, while a teacher is expected to do most of her preparation after normal work hours.
What would a teacher’s version of a professional kitchen look like? I imagine a private office with a desk, a computer, a telephone, a well stocked bookshelf, chairs for a couple of visitors, a window. This would not be a shared room, but an office with a door, where paperwork could be left on the desk, where the books belonged to the single occupant, where silence balanced the busy dynamic of the classroom. Two consecutive hours in this office during each school day would allow a teacher enough time to get a good start on emails and phone calls to parents, original lesson preparation and evaluation of student work. No doubt work would still be brought home. But, two consecutive hours of office time each day would insure that, even when the teacher had to deal with a family emergency, she would have an acceptable level of preparation complete before the next school day.
A meal prepared from fresh ingredients is clearly better than a meal dumped out of a can and warmed. Yet, many do not understand that the fresh, original lesson is preferable to one delivered in a standardized script that the teacher reads to the class. This is why I wrote A Gift of Wonder, to show what education looks like when teachers are trusted, free and responsible.
Kim Allsup, M.Ed. taught elementary and middle school students in independent schools for 25 years. She is the author of A Gift of Wonder, A True Story Showing School As It Should Be A Gift of Wonder: A True Story Showing School as Should Be Link to book
Resources: A Gift of Wonder, A True Story Showing School as it Should Be, A book that shows the value of freedom in teaching: here
Research: “Multiple types of motives don’t multiply the motivation of West Point cadets” here