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3 Things Teachers Can Learn from Cooking

Or: Trying out a new metaphor
Did you know that research shows that Americans today are cooking less and buying more pre-pared meals than ever before? According to food writer, Michael Pollan, “time spent preparing meals in American households has fallen by half since the mid-sixties”. We spend less time cooking, says Pollan, than any other nation in the world.
This is not surprising, I suppose, what with our collective obsession with speed, efficiency, and “getting things done” (to say nothing of the way our cultural priorities have changed since then).
Good cooking takes time, patience, and preparation. It’s not something you can rush, whether you are roasting a chicken, making a soup, or baking bread. By its very nature it demands the passing of time. And, in fact, for many of the greatest dishes we all love, the longer it cooks the better it tastes.
As I have been reflecting on the ways our cooking habits have evolved, I’ve come to see that cooking can teach us a great deal about teaching. And I’m not just referring to the comfort food we all indulge in at the end of a particularly hard day in the classroom.
Here are three of those things:
The other day I picked this beautiful large heirloom tomato from our garden. It’s called a German Johnson and I had been waiting for it to ripen for quite a while. For weeks it had been large as a softball but green as a pear. We waited and waited and waited but it took what seemed like forever for it to turn. I started to wonder if it was just a dud and if it was going to harm the rest of the vine, which was populated by various other blossoming young tomatoes.
But I waited. And I’m glad I did.
One morning I went outside and found it an effervescent pinkish-red, a vibrant beautiful shade you don’t really see in nature anywhere but in tomatoes. Patience makes perfect in produce.
Nature has its own pace (which, I think, is why almost all of our technology is built to overcome nature, or at least to harness it, to offset the repercussions of it being what it is).
Think about that baked bread or roast chicken I mentioned earlier. Think about all the waiting you have to do. The patience you have to show. If you rush the process you’ll wind up with a flat loaf or an undercooked chicken. This is obviously problematic from a healthy perspective but it also means you won’t get food that tastes as good as it would were you to give it the proper time.
Or consider pickling: you combine cucumbers (or whatever) with, say, garlic and dill and then top with a vinegar brine of some sort. And then you wait. If you don’t give it some time to sit then you’ll get bland pickles. And everyone knows that the only thing worse than a bland pickle is no pickle.
The same principles apply to teaching.
As teachers we plant seeds whose fruit we won’t see for a long time. In many cases we will never witness that fruit. The students will leave us and we may never know exactly the ways our instruction helped them blossom. Very rarely are teachers harvesters. We are planters, waterers, cultivators. Our job is to take the long view and to pray that our labor reaps something. This isn’t always easy but it does no good to try to harvest a fruit that isn’t ripe, that hasn’t been given time to flourish.
“Mise en Place” is a French phrase, meaning “to put in place”, that refers to the preparation necessary to cook efficiently and purposefully. It involves making sure all of your ingredients are ready to go and organized so that you can focus on the cooking instead of frantically searching for the olive oil or cutting board.
I suspect that anyone who cooks at home employs mise en place to varying degrees, but it’s key to survival in the fast pace of a professional kitchen. The same is true in the classroom.
There’s no substitute for a teacher’s quality preparation. Without preparation a teacher can’t teach with purpose. This obviously refers to photocopies and supplies and crafting lesson plans, all of which are important.
But it also refers to the kind of preparation that involves contemplation. A good teacher reflects on both the subject he is teaching and his role as a cultivator of wisdom and virtue; he doesn’t lose sight of (or ignore) the purpose of his calling. That is, he doesn’t allow contemplation of the lesson plans to keep him from preparing his own mind and soul for the act of seed-planting.
And that kind of contemplation can actually lead to a more flexible teacher. Like the chef who can adjust on the fly because he knows the nature of his ingredients and the role they play within the dish and in his particular kitchen, the teacher who prepares contemplatively can respond with grace, patience, and creativity to the unplanned interruptions that necessarily will arise.
Memory in cooking is more than remembering recipes or conversion rates or nutritional statistics. It’s not solely about facts. In the kitchen the healthy memory is one that is full of experiences – shared, mostly. The good cook is good in part because she has developed the ability to recognize what she – and those who taught her to cook – have done in the past: what techniques work best, what flavors are created when ingredients are combined, what equipment is ideal for each dish, and so on. A good cook’s memory born out of – and sharpened by – reflection and evaluation and time.
In our classrooms memory has to be more than timelines and chants and dates, useful though they often are. Like a chef who imparts culinary principles and traditional techniques to his padawan in the kitchen, so we too must be prepared to pass along the shared memories and the collective wisdom of the classical tradition.
We must teach our students to reflect upon and evaluate what worked and what didn’t work, what was in good taste and what wasn’t. Our job is to welcome our students into that collective memory; to welcome them to the table, if you will, and to teach them to contemplatively partake. And as they do their own memories will be expanded and sharpened and enriched.
As Josh Leland wrote in this space recently, the metaphors we use matter. Too often, he argued, we’ve used technological or industrial metaphors to think about teaching. Maybe it’s time we start thinking in terms of the chef, who carefully prepares a dish because he loves his ingredients and cares about his guests. We have such brilliant ingredients at our disposal. It would be a shame to ruin them by rushing or under preparing or forgetting where they came from.

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