2020 – 2021: When Teaching is Like a Bad Cooking Show by Colleen Cruz

My favorite cooking show, and I know I’m not alone in this, is the Great British Baking Show. I love all the support and positivity of the show between the contestants. And I also love the seeming fairness of it. Times and ingredients are within the realm of realistic possibility. Almost all of the mistakes made are because contestants are pushing themselves to take risks, not because of impossible demands or unexpected obstacles. And for the most part, the audience is treated to displays of passion and skill in baking. The final winner of the season gets some flowers and a cake plate, but also knowledge they were the best of the group.

My least favorite cooking shows are ones where the contestants are given incredibly challenging tasks, an impossibly short time frame, and unrealistic obstacles that would never happen in the real world. The worst offender is the recently cancelled Cutthroat Kitchen, hosted by Alton Brown. For those who have never watched it, the premise starts out typically – contestants have to cook something specific in a short time with specific parameters. 

But Cutthroat Kitchen took that model and added layers of unfairness that make it not so much a contest of cooking skill as a reflection on endurance and luck. Contestants can throw challenges at fellow competitors, and the host could also throw obstacles as well. Make salted caramel – but we’re taking your salt! Make a cake and include a mezcal worm and nutritional yeast. When the judging happens, the judges are not told who was given what advantages or what disadvantages. And, if mistakes were made because of imposed obstacles, no grace is given, but rather people with fewer obstacles are judged on exactly the same criteria as those with the most. Winners in this competition are rarely the best cooks. They were either the luckiest or the most vindictive. Alton Brown ultimately quit hosting the show, saying, “It is NOT a show about cooking.”

As both a parent of two public school students in New York City and an educator who works with scores of other educators, I have found myself thinking more and more that the current pandemic schooling situation is more Cutthroat Kitchen than Great British Baking Show as this school year draws to a close and we begin to plan for next year. Despite the claims that all students will receive a ‘high quality education’, many teachers find it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to do exactly that. 

Teachers, like all humans, make mistakes in our day-to-day practice. To borrow a tennis term, there are many opportunities where we can and do make unforced errors. We lose the book we planned to read aloud. We forget to attach a document to the class assignment we posted. We mispronounce a name we’ve been taught to say dozens of times. We completely flub teaching a strategy that is central to a skill. There are countless reasons we make mistakes that are nobody’s fault but our own. 

But I feel that during pandemic and soon-to-be post-pandemic teaching, when the stakes feel impossibly high, educators are not only dealing with regular run-of-the-mill mistakes, but we got lifted up and dropped into the education version of Cutthroat Kitchen.

HOST: Welcome to Pandemic Teaching! For today’s instructional goal, I’d like you to teach students how to read during a pandemic. Are you willing?

TEACHER CONTESTANT: That’s quite a challenge, but I love teaching students how to read, so yes!

HOST: Great! But, just to keep it interesting, you’re going to do that completely online!

TEACHER CONTESTANT: Ok. That is a challenge, but I think I can do that. I can use an online digital library I know really well that has great books and…

HOST: Nope. You can’t use that library. It has not been approved and access has been blocked.

TEACHER CONTESTANT: Huh. That’s tough, but you know what, I can just make books baggies and drop off books to my students’ homes, so…

HOST: Yeah, no. We have strict materials use protections in place, so kids cannot touch anything from school.

TEACHER CONTESTANT: Really? That’s ok. I think if I teach in small groups, using break out rooms, I could share books using my document camera.

HOST: We’re changing digital platforms. The new one doesn’t allow breakout rooms.

TEACHER CONTESTANT: Wow. Ok. I guess I can just schedule kids in time slots so I can still do the small groups, but in phases.

HOST: I like your spirit, but the district has a new mandate that every child needs to have synchronous whole group instruction all day

TEACHER CONTESTANT: … Ok. That’s a new wrinkle. I need to think this through and collaborate with my colleagues.

HOST: Of course! But a notice just came in that we’re shifting from all remote to hybrid. So, while you’re collaborating, do know some of you will be all in person, socially distanced in rows with no paper allowed, some will be all remote and some will be in person and remote AT THE SAME TIME!


HOST: And don’t forget those standardized tests are coming! We have to make sure everyone is providing high quality education!

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of what is happening is completely out of administrators’ and district level leaders’ hands. We are all being affected by the quickly changing nature of a virus, access to vaccines, and a growing body of science. And for that reason alone, I have great sympathy for everyone who is at the leadership level. And as someone who also has two school aged children, I am also deeply desirous of the highest quality of education that is humanly possible. So, I am not saying I do not understand the compulsion to both change things constantly as circumstances change AND want educational excellence. 

However, I am saying, it is important to acknowledge that educators are not on the Great British Baking Show of education. They are on Cutthroat Kitchen. And, while it might not be possible to staunch the unending stream of changes coming at schools because of the constantly shifting situation, we can rethink many other aspects.

For example, there is one stake that is already high – children need school to be a warm and stimulating place to learn and grow – whether in person or remotely. That stake will not and should not change. And every teacher I have spoken with believe that stake should be the focus of all of our efforts.

I also think it’s important to acknowledge that, while we are focusing on the students, we will be making mistakes. And the constantly shifting expectations, platforms, requirements and tools mean that our mistakes will be a constant stream if we do not get to pick and choose what to prioritize or at least drastically limit the priorities that call for attention. 

Let’s consider a few high stakes priorities educators have recently had thrown at them that have caused them to make mistakes that directly affect the quality of instruction students are getting:

  • Micromanagement of numbers of minutes spent on one-on-one, small group and whole class instruction
  • Regular shifts in amounts of time spent using particular instructional methods or models. One week all whole class lessons must be asynchronous. Another week only core subjects.
  • Platforms and materials approved for use are narrow and seem to rarely have been vetted by educators teaching in the same conditions as those expected to use them
  • Regular formal observations by administrators 
  • Emphasis on standardized testing, or prepping for standardized tests that may or may not be have stakes reduced or even cancelled
  • Switching modes of instruction from online to hybrid to all in person to back again with little warning or opportunity to plan

I could go on. If you are an educator, you probably have many items you could add to the list. And, if you recognize and have experienced any of the items on the list, chances are good that you also have been mistakes connected to them.

I have spent the past several years studying and thinking about mistakes. One thing I know for sure about mistakes is that they are windows into our own thinking and abilities. If we define a mistake as an action that goes differently than we intended then it stands to reason that when we make a mistake there was something we were assuming (I got enough sleep; I can remember that; I’ve done this before, I’ll be fine) that we only discovered when we made the mistake (I need more sleep than that; I need to write important things down; I need more practice with that). 

As educators we are used to, even if we don’t love it, making mistakes. We are also used to systemic mistakes being made that affect the classroom. I think what is new is that so many of the mistakes being made right now systemically are leading to our own mistake making ratio going up. Speaking with the educators I know, this is leading to increased feelings of frustration, anger and guilt. In some cases, people are even considering leaving the profession. It leads one to ask, how do educators continue to teach when while operating within the educational equivalent of Cutthroat Kitchen, making forced mistake after forced mistake, but feeling completely at a loss as to how to make that salted caramel without salt? 

While I can’t pretend to know exactly what to do to solve this current state of affairs (and really, no one should claim to be able to do that since exactly no one has tried to teach through this confluence of circumstances), I do have some thoughts about the mistake aspect of things, and how educators might reduce the impact of the systemic mistakes being made that can and often do force classroom errors.

  • Pause.

When you stop to think of a recent mistake you made – probably not school related – the chances are pretty good that if you had paused before you took the action that ended up being a mistake, you might have prevented that mistake. Whether it was one more re-read of that email or weighing words before they were spoken or checking that rearview mirror. The same is true for when we hear edicts from the district or the school board or administrators. ‘The test is coming! We have to take the test!’, ‘The platform is changing! We need to use a new platform!’. 

So many of the mistakes being made right now could be prevented if instead of running headlong into whatever is coming next, we paused. There is no real reason to throw out our plans for April because of testing. Or to dump all of our practices for using Zoom and do it today when we do not need to make the switch to Teams for another week. Or to change our furniture again because now we are going to be teaching in person and to children streaming lessons at home starting after the spring break. 

For one thing, the pause allows for whoever is making these changes time to adjust or even change their minds, without disrupting our current flow. More times than we can count during the pandemic, edicts have been declared only to be walked back from or completely changed within a few days’ times. I have no doubt the speed of those edicts is not going to slow when the pandemic is declared over and the urgency to staunch ‘learning loss’ is in full swing. The pause allows those changes to happen externally without ever touching you or your students.

Additionally, the pause allows you time to think and plot. If those changes are in fact coming, what can you do to minimize the negative impacts on you and your students? You need time to pause and consider that. Very few mistake-free moves have been made without a purposeful pause.

  • Focus on your values, not the mistakes (possible or past).

One of the biggest surprises to me as I embarked on study about mistakes, is that when someone makes a mistake, and would like to not repeat it, focusing on the mistake itself, perseverating on it, reflecting on it, and bathing in the guilt of it, does not make us less likely to repeat the mistake, but actually more likely. When we focus on the mistake so much and the events leading up to it, and how did this happen? ends up making those pathways easier repeat than not. This is of course what I had been doing instinctively for years, and coaching students to do as well, “Spend time thinking about your mistake. What you did wrong. Why it happened.” But when mistake experts tell us is that what we should be doing instead is definitely spend time addressing and making amends for any possible harm done and do a quick bit of reflecting. But then, we should switch gears to focus on what our values are and put our efforts into remembering what they are and how our actions either uphold those values or go against them. 

Yes, I might have made a busy work assignment that kids found frustrating. And I should apologize for it. But I am less likely to make that mistake again if instead of wallowing in guilt, I can instead focus on one of my goals – that the work students do with me is meaningful and driven by student interests and needs. Then, I will hold that at the front of my mind, maybe make a note and hang it over my computer, reminding myself of what I value when it comes to teaching and learning.

This strategy not only works well for exploring and working on our own mistakes. It also works well for ways to respond to and approach other people’s mistakes. Did an administrator or district leader make a mistake that affected you or your students? Did a student or their family? Focus on what you know they value and help them to so the same if they start to perseverate. 

Mistakes are being made every day. And we can choose to feel terrible about that, or we can choose to use this as an opportunity to remind ourselves of what really matters.

  • Prioritize yourself.

No, this is not another speech about self-care. And while I do really value self-care for teachers and think that it is so important not just for our health and well-being but also modeling for students, there is another reason we should prioritize ourselves. 

I don’t know about you, but while I was never a gold medalist in self-care before the pandemic, I find it even more difficult to even be on the field when it comes to prioritizing myself during the pandemic. There is just so much to do, that prioritizing myself is even more challenging than ever. Add to that the ever-growing pressure from editorialists, lobbyists and some community members for schools to be the entity to make things ‘back to normal’ for kids, and it can feel guilt inducing to even imagine taking a night to sit on the couch for a movie or go for a nature hike. How can we rationalize this when our students and community need so much?

When we eat nourishing foods, get enough rest, and make time for joy, we are our best selves. And our best selves, much like elite athletes or artists, perform at optimum levels and are less likely to make costly mistakes. So, if we would like to not be pushed to make mistakes due to Cutthroat Kitchen-level teaching conditions, one of the most powerful things we can do is make sure we are not already at our breaking points. 

We can make sure we are putting our mental and physical health first. We can model that for students. We can notice how much more energy we have – how better able we are to be creative, thoughtful and responsive when we are not completely depleted. 

As we wrap-up this Cutthroat Kitchen school year, and look forward to maybe, one day, teaching in the Great British Bake-off equivalent, I find it helpful to both remember that this year, and last year, and probably this coming year, we did the best we could while trying to whip up the educational equivalent of a meringue with no eggs. And to know that while there are ways we can minimize our mistakes, it’s important to also remember that not everything is within our control.  So, here’s me, giving you your well-deserved cake plate and flowers right now, with fierce wishes for the teaching conditions to go with them sometime very soon.

Colleen Cruz is the author of the young adult novel Border Crossing, and several titles for teachers including the recently published Risk .Fail. Rise. A Teacher’s Guide to Learning from Mistakes. She was a public school teacher in general education and inclusive settings and is currently the Director of Innovation at the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project.