A Metaphor for Teaching: Baking Your Brownies Just Right

Note: During the 12 years that I served as a principal, I wrote TGIF messages to my staff. These messages may have been a retelling of something I saw at school, an experience I wanted to share, a motivational message, or just something that was on my mind. Below is one of those messages, written during my tenure as the Fiske Elementary School principal in Wellesley, updated for Shaped!

A few years back there was this great show on PBS—The Dessert Circus—in which a French chef taught viewers how to make wild stuff like Banana Moon Cakes, Crystal Lollipops, and Chocolate Corn Flakes. There was, of course, circus music and graphics to go along with the show’s upbeat theme. It was fun stuff to watch and just dream about making, even if you were just planning to laze around on the couch all day. Ah, the days before house, children, and dog and going hither and yon, but I digress. 

One thing I remember from the show was the chef saying he didn’t know why Americans would even think about making brownies from scratch since there were so many box varieties that tasted as good or even better than scratch recipes. This from a French pastry chef!

Here’s the thing about boxed brownies, which I love—my wife makes them better than me. How could this be? I mean you have the mix, some eggs, oil, water and a greased pan. The only thing needed is to mix it all together and bake for the allotted time at the recommended temperature. (Just so you know, I do most of the cooking at home, so I wonder where I go wrong—or better yet, where my wife, Kara, goes right.)

I was reminded of this last week when I decided to whip up some brownies while Kara was out cheering on our niece at her college soccer game. I did as I always do: made sure I had the necessary ingredients, pre-heated the oven, greased the pan, and mixed everything up. The result was OK, but not great, brownies.

A Metaphor for Teaching

Believe it or not, this got me thinking about teaching. With the national push for changes in teacher observation and evaluation during the last decade or so, it feels a bit like the brownie mix to me. The standards are all the different mixes from which you must choose or are choosing without even realizing it while you teach; the conditions are your classroom, not a preheated oven; and the mixing is what you get when lessons meet your students, and they meet you. 

The brownies are standardized and the directions, except if you live in high altitude, are standardized as well. Teaching for as much as we want to “standardize” it will never be so, and this is good. The challenge is how to keep the art—yes, the art—of teaching healthy and autonomous enough for you and your students’ enjoyment and learning while providing a forum of growth for all. 

The aspect of the teacher evaluation system I enjoyed being part of most was the “mix.” This is the talking about what teachers were doing, how they were doing it, and how I could help. A few years back, while I was principal of the Fiske Elementary School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, my mentor John D’Auria said something so obvious, yet something I had not been able to articulate in my 11 years of leading schools.

He said, “You know Anthony, you’re not going to have student growth without teacher growth.” It was one of those "light-bulb-clicking-on" kind of moments because it’s so true. 

The Most Important Ingredient

I know what good teaching looks like; have always been committed to improving it along my staffs, when I led schools and now with teachers and leaders across the country that I work with. Teaching—unlike the brownie box—involves something very important that no rubric will ever be able to measure—you. It truly has been my joy helping teachers and school leaders figure things out, get better, and struggle along with them at times because as we have learned, “failure is just another way of learning.”

Thankfully, you as educators also have that something else that I cannot capture in mixing brownies—your individual style, verve, and know-how. Some of it you can tell me; other “stuff” can only be witnessed, and some is just your magic with your students, staffs, and families.

I know my wife can’t tell me how her brownies are better than mine. She can’t even show me, but I can taste the difference. For teaching purposes I got to see it, tell my teachers what I saw, and our conversation ensued. When I consult, I have to dig a deeper, faster to help in short spurts, but it still comes back to the give-and-take of the feedback. I continue to look forward to the a talk that makes us better teachers, learners, and leaders. Maybe I’ll bring some brownies.

***

You can book a keynote with Anthony Colannino to bring his expertise about instructional excellence and growth mindset to your school or district.