The Secret Sauce

Teaching style can be kind of like a secret sauce. It’s that special thing that makes you unique, a kind of trademark. As a high school student I had certainly thought that I might like to become a teacher at some point, but it wasn’t until years later that I discovered my passion for teaching. My journey through undergraduate education was nontraditional. I took a five year break from classes and worked at Saggio’s Pizzeria in my hometown of Albuquerque. By the time I left, I had performed every job in the restaurant and was working at a new drive-thru store that I helped open. My favorite job during this time was being a pizza maker. It was one of the biggest and busiest restaurants in town and it was really fun to be running around a flour covered kitchen making pizzas and calzones as fast as I could. Another part of this job that I really enjoyed was getting to train the new employees. I was very passionate about the food that I made and I enjoyed teaching new people how to make the most beautiful mediterranean pizza or how to cut the perfect leaf-shaped vent holes in a calzone. When I was reading the material from Professor Fowler, it made me think of my experience in the pizzeria. I enjoyed teaching the material because it was something that I was really passionate about. It also made me recognize that teaching in a classroom requires awareness of so many other important details aside from just being passionate.

I have not yet had the opportunity to teach a class, so it is difficult to say what my teaching style is. I have been a TA for two mechanical engineering labs however, and I think I can say I want to be a teacher who promotes learning above all else. I think I will be able to relate to students who do not succeed in traditional classrooms because I am a student who really struggles in those environments. Becoming a mentor to students is something that really drives me.

Professor Fowler also talks about nerves, how they effect teaching and how they can be leveraged to be, as Fowler says, “positive attributes”. I like this point and I think that learning to harness one’s nervousness is an essential skill even for those who do not “perform” as teachers do, in front of people everyday. I began playing the conga drums when I was 10 years old and began performing in front of crowds soon after. I was incredibly nervous the first time that I walked out onto a stage to perform. It was so scary, but it was also really exciting. I look forward to developing my teaching so that I can get that same excitement after a great lecture.

While I may not know what my teaching style or technique will look like, I do know that like any good pizza you must consider all the ingredients and how they come together to make something truly special. You must take care and have patience with the dough and you have to have good sauce and good cheese but never too much of either! As a teacher you must foster a safe and patient environment and include the right amounts of structure and freedom, without too much of either, to create that special space where learning flourishes.

11 thoughts on “The Secret Sauce”

  1. I’ve found that being the TA can be a interesting opportunity to dialog with students in a less formal context than professor-student level. It gives an opportunity to get to know them, and provide some input from your own perspectives. Occasionally I have chatted with students about teaching styles, future plans, and general experience. Even if it’s not in the traditional classroom environment, you would still be educating the students so i think it counts.

  2. In every good recipe, there is always a secret ingredient. After reading your post and thinking in what would be the secret ingredient for teaching, I realized that passion is the secret ingredient. Passion help to enjoy what we do and as consequence help to be a useful guide for students. Of course, we should always be aware of other important details as you described above.

  3. Wonderful post Abram. It made me think of food network and the “Chopped” show which alo in itself can be used as an analogy for what we do in profession – figuring out what drives us is super important for sure.

  4. I like your story about making pizza. Teaching does have some similarity with making pizza or cooking more generally. You will need consider a lot of things to engage the students and deliver the knowledge effectively just like you need the right ingredients to make perfect food. But it might take some time to find the right recipe.

  5. You’re absolutely right. Being passionate is simply step 1 of teaching. There are several other things that you have to pay attention to. Small details eventually end up being the deal breaker.

  6. You have lots of great responses here, so I’ll just note that I’m sure your secret sauce will include authentic interaction and engagement with your co-learners. The positive rush of making fine pizza and the afterglow of a successful congo drums recital (you are making a guest appearance in GEDI, right? ;-)) come from slightly different places, but I think both have their analogies in a vibrant learning community.

  7. Yes I love this idea of educational performance. The nervousness and the anxiety can drive a flawless delivery as long as they are harnessed in the right way. When it comes to the analogy with making pizza and calzones my only concern is that there is a pressure to produce efficiently- which in my mind translates more to the factory model of churning out graduates in an educational industrial complex. I agree that the special sauce is what makes the pizza (or the product, or the student) unique and marketable in the end- but let’s make sure it remains a home-made, hand-made recipe and we don’t lose track of the individual needs of each and every student.

  8. So, when are we having some homemade pizza? It is kind of interesting how some of us went to the analogy, relationship with something different to describe what teaching is/needs… and I am sure there are plenty of other examples… Seconding Ethan, the lab GTA experience is definitely valuable, and although it might not come with all the responsibilities of teaching a “lecture” section, the nervousness, the respect, the engagement, the passion, all plays a role there as well

  9. Nice post. I like the analogy. We need to develop our secret sauce, but also need to adjust the toppings a bit for each class, as every student’s taste is a bit different. The problem is developing this sauce is easier said than done. I wonder how much of a brilliant teacher’s brilliance is developed, and how much is raw talent. Did VT’s most famous prof, Dr. Boyer, train to be the teacher he is, or is it natural? At any rate, your post is evidence that you’re on the right track. And now I want pizza…

  10. I think nervousness in itself makes people nervous when talking about it. It just isn’t a very comfortable topic. It requires vulnerability to tell someone else what makes you nervous, what happens when you are nervous, and what you have to do in order to rid yourself of some of this nervousness (Fowler article). Ok I’ll start… haha! I always get nervous before teaching or giving a presentation, sometimes more than others. When I get nervous, my heart starts to beat quickly and my mouth gets dry. I have to take deep breaths both before and while I’m in front of a crowd. I also try to have a water bottle on hand so that my dry mouth doesn’t lead to a coughing fit. There you go… I did it! However uncomfortable it may be, I do think the physical aspects of teaching should be talked about openly. I believe that the more we talk about it, the more we’re able to solve the issues associated with them rather than to hide them.

  11. I’m *really* glad to see another non-traditional student going into a teaching career. I’ve had similar breaks in my educational track as I’ve struggled to pay for it all. Looking back, its been one of the best paths my life could have taken.

    I firmly believe that one of the hardest hurdles to cross when transitioning from the student to the teacher is recognizing the importance of topics and a priority to convey them in. Having a life perspective outside of academics helps immensely. If for no other reason than it gives the person an alternate mindset to compare his or her academic mindset with. What works in both settings? What seems to work in one but not the other and why? From there, its a matter of applying ideas, seeing how they work, and adapting.

    I’m sure you’ll do a stellar job when it comes time to teach a full class.

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