Last night was our fall semester parents night dinner at the private elementary school where I teach "food appreciation" to the kids in the "after school" program. When I was first asked to take on these classes I challenged myself not to look at this as a glorified baby-sitting position but to actually teach the kids something memorable during the two hours they spend between the end of classes and the time when Mom (or the nanny) arrives to take them home.
I'm always surprised how well this strategy has worked, especially when a parent shares an amusing anecdote. "I took my son to the grocery store the other day and told him I'd buy him a treat. I was expecting to end up in the candy section. But instead, he said he wanted a zucchini," said one mother, who also happens to be the school nurse. "I've never been able to get him to eat zucchini. But there he was, slicing it up and drizzling it with olive oil.."
Another mother approached me last night after the dinner. "My daughter loves the food classes. I can't believe it. She's actually eating cucumber! I don't know who you are, but I think you must be some sort of god."
I don't know about the last part. But I do think that teaching children about whole foods and fresh raw ingredients, allowing them to handle food--touch it, smell it, taste it--and participate in the preparation of food opens their minds to trying new things. It's certainly not a cure-all: kids still have their likes and dislikes. The younger ones especially tend to say they don't like something before they've ever tried it. But even if they refuse to eat something the first time, exposing them to different foods in a learning environment increases the chances that they will be more open to new things in the future.
It's certainly not easy. Any time you get two or more kids together they will find ways to be distracted and get into trouble. Engaging children--getting them to focus and stay focused--is a real challenge. Good teachers do not get nearly the respect--or the rewards--they deserve. There is a huge temptation to be sharp or angry with children who misbehave in a classroom situation. But I've learned over the months that getting mad doesn't solve anything. It's a sign of failure, a signal that the teacher needs to get more creative.
That's not so hard in a cooking class. I can always bring some new kitchen gadget. I can't wait, for instance, to see how the kids react to the pasta machine. I even went out and bought a chitarra: that's an Italian device that looks like the guts from a piano. You roll pasta dough over the wire strings and it slices into linguine.
But sometimes there are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat and you have to fall back on human ingenuity. That's what makes some teachers god-like, I think. They connect with children in a way that's hard to fathom, never harsh or frustrated, always coaxing, leading, teaching.
I was reminded of that this week when I entered the garden at my daughter's school and found things in disarray. Someone had unwound the garden hose and it was laying in a tangled heap around the hose reel. The watering wand had been removed and disassembled, the pieces were scattered about. And the water had been left on.
I sent an indignant e-mail to all the powers-that-be at the school. Doesn't anyone respect our garden equipment? I wondered aloud. I got a sheepish reply from one of the teachers, explaining that the kids in her class had been out of control, squirting each other with the hose and goofing around. She was so busy trying to control them she wasn't able to pay attention to anything else. And she didn't know who had turned the water on (you need a special key) and forgotten to turn it off.
"Blame me," she said.
Well, I wasn't really looking for someone to blame. And what I wrote back to this teacher was, maybe the garden should be more of an opportunity to teach the kids about good behavior. Maybe there was some routine or ritual we could develop to engage and focus the kids so that when they walked into the garden it was with an attitude of respect and readiness for learning, rather than starting a riot. In other words, let's try to make this about teaching the kids, rather than just controlling them.
Don't get me wrong. I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. But if I've learned anything over the last couple of years, it's that we as adults need to fight our first impulse to get angry at children who don't behave the way we'd like them to and try harder to be good teachers.