Chef Laura: Don’t smile until Christmas

The predictable ambush is once again here: a new school year!  And first-year teachers around the nation are more nervous than Guy Fieri wearing flip-flops next to an oil-sputtering fryolator.

I know; I was one of them (a first-year teacher – not a celebrity chef with questionable choice in kitchen foot wear).

Studying to become a secondary school teacher, I had an acclaimed professor.  He gave us newbies some tongue-in-cheek advice regarding the dreaded first year of teaching:  Don’t smile until Christmas.

While my classmates knee-slapped with laughter, I carefully wrote those four words down in my notebook.

New managers are a lot like novice teachers.  Some overly-eager managers want to befriend their staff from day one.  If that’s your style and it works for you, then kudos to you!  But more often than not, that approach backfires. 

Please note – I never withheld the well-deserved “attaboys”.  But I found that, like managers, strict teachers can always get nicer, but nice teachers can never get stricter.  Want proof?  Here’s a little tale from my pedagogical past:

Arriving at an urban high school outside of Washington, DC, I took my prof’s words to heart and was stricter than a Boulder vegan.

Tardiness was a chronic problem in our school – and not because the co-eds were feverishly navigating a complex labyrinth of hallways. Being teen-agers, they loitered by their lockers, gossiped with their gal pals and pushed the limits of PDA between classes. 

Most teachers would let students slip in late, give ‘em the hairy eyeball, and hope the message was received.  As for me – when the second bell rang, I locked my classroom door.

No late pass, no admission to class, no exceptions.

They’d stomp off to the main office to plead with the vice principal for a late pass.  Upon their return, they were given a plastic apron and directed towards the three-compartment sink.  Instead of whipping up tasty treats, “Tardy Teen” spent the next 45 minutes elbow deep in suds.

You would think the VP would get a little fed up, but he didn’t.  Know why?  In my four years of teaching, only five kids had to make “the walk of shame.”

How can that be?  Quite simply: word of mouth.

I overheard a student whispering to her classmate predicting “Ms. Cook looks mad nice, but I bet she’s mad evil.” 

“Thank you, Aja,” I said, poker-faced, not taking my eyes off of my clipboard. “You’re quite astute.”

Fellow first-year teachers were envious to learn that I didn’t have many discipline problems.  Veteran teachers scratched their heads as to why students sprinted to my room.  And my class loved the “game” to see who was going to end up with dishpan hands that day.  As Wilde & Wilder said (Oscar and Gene, that is): “The suspense is terrible – I hope it will last!”

The day before Christmas break, I took off my chef toque, let my hair down, and – smiled.  “Have a nice holiday you guys!” I said, patting my students on the back.  They hungrily gobbled up the kind gesture while wondering who spiked my egg nog.

Returning from vacation, I opened the classroom door at the first bell to warmly shake hands with each student, already lined up.  “Welcome back Kevin, nice to see you.  Hello Florence, did you have a good vacation?” And so on.  Then something unexpected happened – fresh faces stepped forward holding a schedule in their left hand, while their right hand awkwardly awaited a firm shake.

“I wanna take your class this semester.  My guidance counselor said there’s room.”

“Sure, come on in,” I nodded, taking the boy’s paperwork.

Another one explained “I was supposed to take pottery, but I heard this class was really good.”

“Welcome,” I smiled at the girl.

Then a shady character attempted to sulk pass me mumbling “The ‘Veep’ told me to take your class.”

“Did he?” I challenged, not letting the slouching sophomore over the threshold.  “Why?”

“I dunno.  Something about you being strict…or fair…or whatever,” he sighed.  “Anyway, can I come in?”

Just then the second bell rang and the boy’s Sketcher’s were still in the hallway.

“You’re late” I said flatly.  “You get to wash pots and pans today.”

“Wha? But – wait a sec lady –“

“It’s ‘Ms. Cook’.” He shifted nervously as I let the pause sink in.  “I’ll let it slide today.  But tomorrow I expect you to be early.”

“Fine.  What-everrrr.” He grumbled.  After he was done rolling his eyes, he looked at me just long enough to see my mouth turned slightly up…smiling. 

He ended up being one of my best students.

Categories: Management & Leadership