Over the weekend, I read “The Classroom Chef” by John Stevens and Matt Vaudrey. This is a post about my reaction to the book.
The premise of the book is to use cooking in a restaurant as a metaphor for constructing teaching in a classroom. It’s a good metaphor, and executed well. Warm up routines are “appetisers”, being prepared is “setting the table”, creating curiosity before giving answers is “entree”, things you do to make life more fun in the classroom are “side dishes”, and assessment is “dessert”. The commitment to the metaphor is even more impressive than that, with the contents page called the “menu” and the references section called “secret ingredients”. Just looking at the menu was enough for me to want to read the book more closely.
The major messages the book seemed to be getting at were the following:
- Don’t be afraid to really love maths in front of your students.
- Give students the chance to show you how they understand in their own way. Posters and videos don’t feel fun for everyone when they are being assessed on it.
- Set things up in your class activities so students are curious about something. It doesn’t have to be “real world” and it definitely doesn’t have to be serious, it just has to have a question that needs an answer. Some silliness and shock value will make it taste better, but the setup for curiosity is the really important bit.
- It’s a risk to try something new with your teaching, but your students will appreciate it and you can’t learn without it.
It’s only a short book, so it didn’t go too deeply into any of those, though there’s probably more examples of the ideas in action on the companion website. But still I reckon classroom teachers would get something good out of it.
Unfortunately, for me, I had trouble as I read this book because early on John and Matt described their early teaching experiences and it brought back a whole lot of unpleasant memories for me. Their description of the days when they felt that perhaps teaching wasn’t for them actually made me cry with my own memory of feeling the same way. The worst part was that I knew Matt and John stuck with it and are now writing books about teaching, whereas I left. My first school I quit before the end of my first year there (there were a number of reasons for this), and the second school I stuck out the full year, but at the end of that I went back to uni to do my PhD in geometry.
Continuing to read the book, Matt and John talk a lot about being brave enough to take risks in the classroom. I am sorry to say that all this did was make me feel like my own reaction to these early stresses was chickening out. I felt like I had been a coward and let down the students I could have had by leaving teaching. Moreover, as they describe some of the fun things they did in their classrooms, I think back to some of the similar things I did and wonder if there was something wrong with me that they didn’t make a huge difference to how I felt about teaching.
Thinking about it more, I have found one possible factor that made my experience different to Matt and John’s: support. In the book, they both describe the support they received from their school leadership and from instructional coaches in their early years of teaching, sometimes without them having to ask for this support. I had neither of those things at my first school. At my first school, I was it for maths and science and my principal was a bully who repeatedly undermined me to the students when I was not in the room and attacked my relationship with my wife. At my second school, it was better since there were more other teachers to lean on, but still I was pushing against a curriculum leader who actually said aloud that maths was “a collection of problems and a procedure to solve each one”, and a school leadership who weren’t committed to helping me improve, only to telling me I needed to. Plus, this was before Twitter, so there was no #MTBoS.
Looking back, I think the critical lack of support was one of the major causes of me giving up on teaching high school. Reading the descriptions of support in this book made me weep for poor past David. Of course I know that it has all turned out for the best because it has meant that here I am at Uni doing the best job in the world, but I couldn’t say totally enjoyed the experience of reading it. Sorry Matt and John.
UPDATE: Check out John’s reply at his own blog — follow the link in the comments.