Learning to Serve, Part I

“One thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve." 
Albert Schweitzer

After thirty-five years of full time public education service, I retired, effective June 30, 2017. Of course, like many “retirees," I will likely be as busy--if not more so--than I was prior to June 30. Much of my time will now be devoted to working with Jimmy Casas, Todd Whitaker, and others to host What Great Educators Do Differently conferences around the United States and Canada. In addition, I will be serving as an Instructional and Leadership Coach with the International Center for Leadership in Education. Finally, I hope to continue writing books about education and speaking to groups of teachers and leaders whenever possible.

In addition to these ongoing professional pursuits, I am also exploring non-educational interests. A bit of a frivolous example from just last week was a bartending course I took in Chicago. A close colleague and friend also retired from our school district June 30; the two of us enrolled in a bartending course just for fun and to try something completely different than our previous vocation. We decided on the accelerated four-day class. Throughout our time together learning to tend bar, I reflected on how the experience was both similar to and different from learning in public education environments.

Some things about the bartending course were completely different and much worse than what I witness in classrooms around the country on a daily basis. For one, the instructor swore at us regularly and even kicked one student out of class at one point. Other parts of the experience were great, however; chief among them was the fact that I actually learned a ton in a short amount of time. After four days, I now know and can do much more than prior to the course. So, in terms of learning, it was a big win. In fact, I was challenged beyond what I thought possible. 

At the outset, we were told that we would need to mix 22 different drinks correctly in less than nine minutes in order to “graduate” from the class. At first, we all agreed that this was simply not possible for an experienced bartender, let alone rookies like us who would only be practicing for two days. We secretly agreed that this was merely a scare tactic and they would let us know it was an impossible feat just before handing out our “diplomas.” Shockingly, a mere twenty-four hours after agreeing the task was a metaphysical impossibility, I conquered it--with 12 seconds to spare. This left me wondering if we are challenging our students often enough, pushing them beyond what they (and maybe even we) think they can do. 

No one wants to see students frustrated on a regular basis, but I was reminded that when I am pushed, I can often do the “impossible.” With the right kind of teachers and teaching, our kids can, too. We need to create a vision of what success will look like in terms of their learning and growth and then go about inspiring them to achieve it, supporting and encouraging along the way, but never letting up on our expectations that they can and will learn. 

Some things happened in our bartending class that allowed me to accomplish this learning goal that also apply to our classrooms:
  • First, the learning and performance goals were crystal clear. We knew exactly what we were expected to do. In our schools, we must also clarify what the learning targets are and our expectations for meeting these.
  • Next, the teacher modeled for us how to mix and serve each of the 22 drinks. He did not go through them all at once, but “chunked” them, showing what some had in common as a way to save time when preparing them. In our schools, we must also break down the learning into smaller tasks that we “chunk” together in logical ways.
  • Then, he allowed us a great deal of practice time. It was helpful to watch him as a way to get started, but the real learning happened when we actually practiced. In our schools, we must also allow for plenty of deliberate practice time. 
  • Feedback. I got better at what I was doing when I received feedback. And not just from the teacher. Some of the most helpful feedback I received came from my colleague taking the class with me. Even though I was in, what was for me, an uncomfortable learning environment, partnering with a classmate I knew and trusted made me much more comfortable and helped me improve. In our schools, we must also provide specific feedback to those we are teaching and leading. Moreover, we must be intentional about providing effective peer feedback opportunities so students and staff learn from each other.
  • Shortly before our official attempts, the instructor brought us back together and showed us some final time-saving techniques for mixing these vastly different drinks. I had been improving all along, and these final tips came just at the right time--when I was close to reaching my goal. Had these subtle tips been offered in the earlier whole group instruction, I would not have been as prepared to act on them. Finally, our instructor told us these were just suggestions and that if a different way worked better for us, we should go with that instead, using any method that worked best for us, as long as we accomplished the goal. In our schools, we must also provide just-in-time, as opposed to just-in-case, instruction. In addition, we must welcome and even encourage individual autonomy for accomplishing goals as long as the goal is accomplished.

Overall, I suspect that bartending and teaching are much more different than alike, but I continue to be struck by how much I learned in a short amount of time and it has me reflecting on how we can challenge ourselves to challenge our students--and each other--just a bit more each day to ensure that we are all reaching our true potential, growing beyond what we even think possible. One distinct characteristic bartenders and educators share in common is that they are both service-oriented endeavors. In my next blog post on this topic, I will share a final reflection about the ways in which serving as a bartender parallel the ways we serve as educators. Learning to serve--and continuing to improve how we serve--is another way we Teach, Learn, and Lead with Passion!


  1. Love the post, Jeff! Congratulations on your retirement, and kudos to you for trying something new and continuing to model life-long learning. I like the connections you make in your post, especially the question about pushing our kids enough. As I read this, I wonder how a person would do in that environment if he/she didn't want to be there. While some students come to school and WANT to be there, there are some that are there only because they are made to be there (and try to find every kind of way to get out of "school" as much as possible). We must ensure that students who fit that description get as much push, instruction, and tips for success as students who demonstrate desire to be in school.
    Thanks for sharing,

    1. Jennifer, Thank you so much for reading and for your comments! You raise a good point about students who are inherently "volunteers" and those who are only there because they have to be there. I wonder if any in the latter category became that way over time because we did not challenge them enough? Hope you are having an awesome summer; thanks again, Jeff

    2. What an amazing experience and good for you, doing something fun and completely different! I hope to attend one of the WGEDD Conferences. I suspect that the word "retired," will not accurately describe you at all. You have just changed paths. We will all be better as a result of your work! Serve it up,in fact, make mine a double! Best,

    3. Cathy, Thanks for reading and your comments; double coming your way when we meet up at WGEDD! We have one scheduled for Nashville April 13/14. Thanks again; cheers! Jeff


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