What is the Recipe for Success in Education? It’s Closer than You Think

Every week Principal Mike Pinto, of James Cole Elementary School, gives his teachers an inspirational morning message. The following was one he recently shared:

There most likely is a recipe box tucked away in a cabinet or resting on a shelf in your kitchen. This box contains a treasured collection of instructions for how to create desserts, salads, casseroles and baked goods. When a carry-in dinner comes up or when a holiday rolls around, this box is removed from its resting place and called to duty to fill the need at hand. There’s a good chance this box contains tried-and-true instructions narrated from your own hand while some are penned from a loved one who lives on in spirit from the words on the card. What is beautiful about the recipe box is that it holds within it a certain sense of assurance. If the ingredients are gathered, measured and combined according to the words on the card, by monitoring the oven and cooking time, one can with a certain sense of certainty know what the outcome will look and taste like. That’s why we hold onto and guard these treasured sets of directions.

Teachers possess recipe boxes of their own. One can pull a textbook, follow a research-based program or utilize a piece of technology as a recipe to increase student learning. But the question remains, “What is the recipe for success in education?”  What is the one card that can be pulled from the recipe box that will work every time? I contend that recipe card is closer than you think. That recipe card is you. Because unlike baking in which the ingredients are all standard, the measurements are always all the same and the temperature and time cooked remain constant, teaching contains nothing but ever-changing variables. Imagine being asked to bake twenty cakes that all look and taste the same. Then imagine that you have some whole-wheat flour, some all-purpose flour, some rice flour and some buckwheat flour.  Then imagine that one some eggs are large, some are medium and some are small. You follow the recipe given and measure to the best of your ability. You then place the mixes in twenty different ovens that all heat within ten degrees of the number on the oven dial, but you don’t know for sure how much or which way above or below the intended mark the temperature will read.  When the timer buzzes, you will have twenty different products but they all will look and most likely taste differently. Now imagine this same scenario with the different types of flours, the varying sizes of eggs, and the collection of ill-tempered ovens but this time the chef is given opportunity to experiment, test and try again and again when attempts don’t yield the desired outcome. The chef will get there, even when the variables are all different and require experimentation, trial, error and oftentimes failure.

There is a tendency in education to want to reach into the recipe box and pull out a card that will solve all ills. I don’t think such a card does not exist. There are too many variables and sometimes when we find something that works one day, the next day it is a complete flop. A teacher’s recipe box contains many fantastic directions that can help one meet many needs. But what all teachers need in the very front of their recipe box is a different type of recipe card: a small hand-held mirror. Because ultimately all of the recipe cards behind it may be tried without success. But the one card that will never fail a child is a teacher who takes the varying ingredients and unstable conditions puts them all together, tries, sometimes fails and tries again. But like any master chef who sprinkles in a little more of this, and a little less of that along with a pinch of a new ingredient to get the desired outcome, a master teacher does the same with approaches both to instruction and to children within her grasp. So the next time you find yourself following a recipe with a child that has worked before with others and isn’t working now, reach into your recipe box and pull out that mirror. Take a good long look at the reflection, then smile, place it back into the box, roll up your sleeves, and get to work. Because the recipe for success in education is closer than you think:  it’s you.