Teachers, Students, Policy Makers, Public: Who is the Chef

A friend from high school posted this link on social media.

The video, description, and just a perusal of some of the comments made me stop and think even more about the state of education today.

In regard to the video, without having access to everything happening in the classroom, it’s impossible to make any real assessment.  In general terms, however, a few of the many issues of the education system of today are obvious.  Many K-12 teachers are hogtied because of legislation such as No Child Left Behind and others both before and after.  With the emphasis on standardized testing and other accountability measures based solely on statistical data, if the teacher actually tries to “teach” instead of “supervising” a station along a conveyor belt the teacher will face repercussions.  In other cases, filling out reports and forms with the popular “education buzzwords” of the day are more important with policy makers than what actually takes place inside the classroom.  Some teachers are expected to be experts and perform the work of those specifically trained and experienced in areas such as law enforcement ranging from discovering abuse and neglect, riot control, surveillance, apprehension of suspects, parole officer, and so on.  Others are expected to take the place of any parent or guardian for anywhere from one to every student in their classrooms. Wherever society has failed, policy makers and the general public feel the teacher has the responsibility to fix the problems but the same policy makers and general public protest vehemently even if the teacher only provides “lip service” let alone takes action to correct the problems.

Like any profession, there are great teachers and people who should not be allowed anywhere near a classroom of students.  Like any profession, I’ll argue the majority of teachers are somewhere between the extreme ranges on both positive and negative ends.  For anyone wanting a citation for my argument, I do not have one but I also do not have a standard image of what makes an effective teacher.  For one student a particular teacher may be the perfect match, but another student will learn more from another instructor.  The reasons for that are infinite, but to me the key is the willingness and ability of both teacher and student to communicate.  I always think of the three C’s in Content, Communication, and Commitment when I think of my best teachers throughout my lifetime.

When you really think about it, teaching is a profession where so much that impacts learning takes place outside the classroom, school buildings, and school ground.  Of course there are exceptions, but generally one could say confidently that a student living in healthy, safe, and stable surroundings with positive role models who promote learning will have an easier time adjusting to a typical classroom environment.  Students who must first battle physical ailments and who must travel by way of a dangerous path just to reach the school grounds may not have the stamina to perform to their highest level in the classroom.  For those contentions, I have too many sources and to cite one or two would not be prudent in this prose.

Inside the classroom, learning is a two way street as it takes both teacher and student working together for optimal performance.  The other students in the classroom, however, are not lagniappe or merely additional lanes of traffic but also ingredients in what is the learning equivalent of a pot of jambalaya.  Every ingredient should complement the other ingredients in the pot as it continues to cook.  Likewise, every individual inside a classroom affects every other individual in some manner.  While each ingredient or student can stand on their own, they can also stand together as a team.

What we have to remember, however, is that the teacher or chef did not run out and collect all the ingredients for the classroom or the jambalaya.  Sometimes, an important component is missing.  Other times it is there but not in the best condition or necessary amounts.  It’s not the teacher but society which supplies the ingredients.  If the chef turns the finest cuts of andouille, tasso, chicken, the freshest garlic, peppers, onions, and the ultimate grains of rice into a pot of slop, the chef needs to be removed from his or her place in front of that black iron kettle sitting on top of that homemade burner made from the rim of a truck tire.  For good measure, I would take that boat paddle used to stir the contents of the kettle and whack the chef across the backside as lagniappe.  A teacher who fails students should be removed as well, but again we must consider what ingredients are available.

If the chef is only provided with water, a single clove of squishy garlic, and two grains of rice, does it make sense to expect to eat jambalaya?  Sadly we have reached a stage where the chef is lucky to receive that amount of stock.  Sure some have fancy aprons and cooking utensils, but the prettiest frills cannot replace the core components.  Even with that limitation of necessary ingredients, some chefs are getting sprayed with the likes of kerosene while standing next to the burner in the political climate and battles of today.

Even when the finest of ingredients are available, we might desire, but do we honestly expect to eat within an hour of the initial lighting of the burner?  Do we even fire up that burner when we get the ingredients?  It takes hours of preparation time to have all the ingredients ready for the kettle.  Once that burner is going, some ingredients make an early entry in the kettle while others patiently await their turn.  Over the course of many hours, everything is eventually added, but the process is far from complete.  It takes more hours for the flavors to melt and bind with its peer ingredients.  That boat paddle (it might not look like a pretty utensil, but it is effective) must be used correctly as well to keep ingredients from sticking to either bottom or sides but not in a way to upset the cooking process.  Finally, after the burner is turned off, you know that good eats are near, and near is only hours away as you have to test your patience by allowing the jambalaya to rest and absorb more of the flavors and spices.  The patience pays off, however, because after that wait and a fluffing of the rice with the ole boat paddle, that hot steaming jambalaya will cause your taste buds to peak and fill your stomach.

Think about it.  At jambalaya cook offs, the judging takes place after the rice has been fluffed that final time.  For teachers, however, we are judging them based upon the recipe and then at stages in the cooking process and our focus is not an assessment of the completed project.  I have a basic jambalaya recipe that I can adjust to cook indoors to serve a family or outdoors with hundreds of servings for a benefit fundraiser.  I doubt if I have ever followed that recipe to the letter, as adjustments are made as to ingredients and cooking times for a multitude of reasons.  Also, some experimentation takes place and may be continued or discontinued depending on a value effectiveness scale of cost, taste, and labor.  Admittedly, many of the experiments seemed reasonable on paper but in reality did not work.  A few looked and sounded idiotic, but the result on the final taste was so profound that the experiment ultimately came to be ratified as an amendment to the basic recipe.  Still, I’ve both overcooked and undercooked rice through my own failings or no fault that anyone observing could detect.  At least on a large scale, I have yet to under spice but I have delivered some extra hot in the opinions of some over the years.  Admittedly some do not prefer the same high degree of the infusion of garlic as I do, but tastes will vary.  That’s the completed product, and I would not advise anyone to taste during the cooking process for legitimate health concerns.

Even with variances, cooking a good jambalaya requires standards just as effective teaching requires standards.  Standards with both, however, must account for an array of variables before, during, and after the process.  Back home, one can walk into a number of stores and see boxes and bags both plain and fancy with the word jambalaya affixed.  I’ll admit that as I have grown older that some of these are actually edible and a couple can actually be prepared and served as a meal even though I would not call that meal jambalaya.  With most of these packets, however, I think that individual ingredients produced by the same company and product label are far superior to any of the readymade mixes.

It may only be my impression, but have you ever thought that many policy makers are trying more and more to make teaching like cooking today?  It is a concept of put something in a pretty package and then toss it into the microwave for a few minutes.  Then they promote the idea of choice which becomes essentially which of the ever increasing brands on the shelf would I like to pop in the microwave tonight.

If everything becomes readymade and instantly “ready” what is the incentive to make something from scratch?  Fortunately we still have many who once only knew how to cook from scratch and the personal satisfaction and the adjustable and usually superior taste one could achieve.  What happens, however, when nobody has the desire to cook from scratch because they have never experienced anything other than readymade?

I think we see some of those results inside the classroom and in the public appreciation and perception of learning and education.  Readymade is convenient.  It can serve a purpose.  It is also profitable for the entity producing the product.  Instead of pushing for more readymade products and seeking the profits from such ventures, imagine if students, parents, guardians, teachers, administrators, and the general public demanded that focus needed to be placed on providing the best ingredients and then learning how to use those staples to craft your own creation?  That, however, requires patience as one cannot judge the results instantaneously.  It also takes the commitment of society as a whole.  The teacher directs the preparation and adding of the ingredients while continuing the cooking process and keeping a close watch over the kettle on the fire, but everyone is involved in the process.

I hope we have not reached the stage where the primary role of the teacher is to toss something in the microwave, set the timer according to a manual, and then press start.  That sells convenience, instant gratification, and creates profits, but while in some ways that can be progress, it can also be regression and ultimately elimination.

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