It’s appropriate that this gathering is in a bar. In my experience, teachers are the best and worst bar patrons – since we can start at 4pm, and often close the place down. No one needs a drink more than a teacher…so cheers! I’m honored to be here at Detention Hall and I am grateful for Dave for inviting me – and to the Hideout staff for making us feel at home. I have many fond memories in this place, and the people who work here are a big part of that.
I, too, have tended bar and waited tables – I worked at a restaurant here in the city to pay for my teaching certification program. Admittedly, I was not much of a server… but I am so grateful for the opportunity that job afforded me and I have come to believe that all aspiring teachers should wait tables before entering the profession. There is a lot to learn from reading the philosophies of Friere, Woodson, Montessori–trudging your way through adolescent development textbooks, and diving into the content and controversies of your discipline, but there were things I learned waiting tables that no education class or text could have prepared me for.
First, the best learning is doing. Servers in training don’t spend a lot of time reading about waiting tables, they do it. Often you will see them walking sheepishly behind a calm, confident server diligently taking notes. Then they take one table with their mentor watching. Slowly more tables are added and the mentor backs away unless advice or help is needed. This should not only be the model for teachers in training, but it should be the foundation for any classroom.
In David Perkins’ book, Make Learning Whole, he argues using a baseball analogy that students should play the game they are learning and not just hear about the game through lecture or read about the game in a textbook. It doesn’t have to be the full version of the game, but students need to have a sense of the meaning of what they are learning in the context of the larger world. Inspired by this, I have students create projects based on asset and need research for their neighborhoods and students serving as representatives at the African Union to try to come to consensus on the most important UN Sustainable Development goal for their region. Students can play the game and they will rise to whatever you ask of them.
The second thing waiting tables helped me learn is to focus on their experience and the tip will take care of itself. I don’t know how successful a restaurant would be if every customer only had one choice that changed on the whim of the chef. It’s the same with students. Give them choices in their learning that respect their varied tastes. Make recommendations, but don’t order for them…or, most importantly, don’t eat for them. At the same time, don’t borrow from the Cheesecake Factory model – offering so many choices that it can be overwhelming. My Women’s Studies class spends the day prior to each new unit thinking about the theme and creating and choosing the three essential questions that we will work to answer. My Human Geography students choose between readings and often identify the homework assignment that would best serve their learning needs. Choice respects the student.
Another important part of focusing on the experience is that everyone arrives in various states of brokenness. This is true everywhere. It took me an embarrassingly long time to learn that when a student has her head down, first ask if she’s okay instead of assuming she’s willfully sleeping through your class. You might be the only person who is asking. Smile often, but also be be willing to show how to talk about frustrations or struggles. I try to show my students ways to open the conversation further, instead of close it.
The bigger the restaurant, the more the tables to serve. Manage your tables, and stick to your section. One of the hardest things for new teachers is to effectively manage the chaos of class. But here too, waiting tables is useful. Give each table something to do and return to check on them. Don’t forget the small things. Show them who you are, but don’t make it about you. Work together with your colleagues and hold your own, but don’t take on tables that aren’t yours. The quickest way to burn out in this job is to be the first year teacher who agrees to coach basketball and soccer and start a history fair club along with everything else. That was me. I have learned that saying no is about prioritizing your interests and protecting your efficacy.
Perhaps most importantly, own your mistakes. I learned this too often in my server days and likely gave away thousands of dollars in free desserts. And while I don’t have desserts to offer I know that when I mess up, I must say so and show students your example of how to fail gracefully. In all of these things I have named, I have failed. I have lectured too much and created projects that were more like completing a recipe than creating something new and personal. I have focused too much on outcomes and not held myself accountable to the experience. I have met brokenness with brokenness. I have taken on sections that weren’t mine, leaving me paralyzed with stress. I have learned to apologize honestly and to work to do better next time. Students, more than anyone, understand mistakes and are ready to forgive.
And finally, pass it on. Newbies are a pain in the ass, but you were one once too. Be the greatness you once shadowed, and show new people the ropes. This job is ridiculous in its mixture of complexity and consequence. We need to be patient with those new to the profession so that they can keep growing, avoid burnout, and be able to reflect honestly on their progress. We also need to hold them to a high standard that honors our craft, but when they’ve arrived in small or large ways into the community of reflective teachers, tell them. We too often forget to tell people that they are ready for the next big thing.
And while I hope that you have tipped your bartender generously tonight, we can’t judge our performance on our daily tips. Some days are bleak and the task of teaching feels thankless. We must remember that we are playing the long game and it is sometimes, years later, when a student reaches out to tell us that our presence in his life made a difference.