How Culinary Arts Teachers Decide What to Teach

How do Culinary Arts teachers decide what to teach? What we teach and how we teach are delineated by several factors:

  • Who is your employer?
  • The availability of tools and equipment
  • Time available for hands-on instruction
  • Your budget
  • Your skills
  • Class composition
  • Food allergies

Who is your employer?

School hallway

Many schools particularly at the post-secondary level (especially if they’re part of a chain of schools like the Culinary Institute of America) will have a preexisting curriculum. What is a curriculum? A curriculum is a course of study. Most schools, regardless of whether they’re at the secondary or post-secondary level will have an adopted textbook series with a teacher’s guide and supporting instructional materials that include handouts, worksheets, quizzes, and tests. The lessons will be organized around instructional units. For example, Foundations I, the adopted textbook series for the Clark County School District, has 12 chapters for Culinary I students that include:

  • Chapter 1: Welcome to the Restaurant and Food Service Industry
  • Chapter 2: Keeping Food Safe
  • Chapter 3: Workplace Safety
  • Chapter 4: Kitchen Essentials I – Professionalism
  • Chapter 5: Kitchen Essentials II – Equipment and Techniques
  • Chapter 6: Stocks, Sauces, and Soups
  • Chapter 7: Communication
  • Chapter 8: Management Essentials
  • Chapter 9: Fruit and Vegetables
  • Chapter 10: Serving Your Guests
  • Chapter 11: P:otatoes and Grains
  • Chapter 12: Building a Successful Career in the Industry

An established program will also have a course syllabus (available through either the school’s administrator, office manager, or department chair) that provides an overview as to what will be taught during the coming year. It also includes information about grading and how grades for tests, quizzes, hands-on production tasks, and written assignments are weighted.

In terms of figuring out what to teach, the easiest thing to do is to get a copy of the school calendar. Identify how many weeks your class will run. If you’re teaching at the secondary level, be aware that public school districts are often divided into 9 week quarters. Two quarters equal one semester and two semesters comprise the entire school year. This gives you approximately 36 weeks for each class. Since teacher editions for textbooks typically have a scope and sequence section that provides a course overview, a simplistic way to map out your school year would be to identify what has to be taught and to divide it over a 36 week period keeping in mind that you will be expected to administer, grade, and record exams at the end of each semester.

In addition to having an adopted textbook series, most secondary level programs are also guided by the state instructional standards which should be available through the Career and Technical Education standards at your state’s Department of Education website. The state standards specify what students throughout your state should be taught. Since the state standards don’t always match the Scope and Sequence of your adopted textbook series, savvy teachers will spend some time correlating what the state expectations are with the instructional sequence in your textbook to identify what else you may need to teach.

Why is this important? Many states have end of the year testing for program completers. In Nevada, Culinary Arts is a 3 year instructional program and completers are subject to on-line testing at the end of the year for jobs readiness skills as well as their overall knowledge of Culinary Arts.

Students who pass this test will receive a state issued certificate of completion. They will also receive 6 college credits for having successfully completed the Culinary Arts program. Since Nevada ties student performance into an annual teacher performance evaluation, Culinary Arts teachers who want to keep their jobs want the highest graduation rate possible. The teacher I replaced only had a program completion rate of 50% for the 2015-2016 school year.

If you’re teaching at a post-secondary level and are responsible for teaching a specific class such as nutrition or Baking I, you will most likely have an existing curriculum that specifically delineates what must be taught and the instructional sequence that you’ll be expected to follow. Classes at a post-secondary institution may only run for one semester. Some classes may even be significantly shorter.

The availability of tools and equipment

Assorted pots and pans

In an ideal world, all Culinary Arts classes would be taught in a state of the art commercially licensed facility that included a licensed restaurant. Although this may be true at the post-secondary level, most secondary schools are housed in former home economics classrooms. Instead of commercial quality stoves with overhead vent exhaustion hoods and a fire suppressant system, kitchen stations typically have home-style stove/oven units. Instead of a walk-in cooler and freezer, most kitchens have home-style refrigerators and freezers. Instead of having stainless steel shelving on casters, most schools utilize drawers and cabinets at individual workstations. Instead of having a dedicated hand-wash station, a three tiered sink, and a sink for food, most kitchens at the secondary level will have a general purpose two tiered sink. Instead of a walk-in storage room, most schools have wooden shelving or two door metal closets.

A decent secondary level Culinary Arts program will have two (hopefully connected) rooms that include a classroom and a kitchen. Some teachers luck out and have an attached office along with one or more large walk-in closets.

During the 9 years I have taught Culinary Arts at the secondary level, I’ve been privileged to work at a school which had a commercially licensed kitchen. I’ve also worked in home economic style kitchens. One of the schools I used to work at was so cramped for space that the school administration took away the attached classroom and moved my desk, all student seating, my file cabinets, and book shelves INTO THE KITCHEN.  As you might imagine, this created a hopeless clutter and since students sat in close proximity to a row of refrigerators, there were increased problems with student pilferage of food supplies. As bad as this sounds, I know of one teacher who worked in a converted RESTROOM with just one stove and one refrigerator. On days when things are going sideways, I sometimes think about that teacher to remind myself of the fact that as bad as things may sometimes seem, some instructors have to deal with problems that are far, far worse.

Time available for hands-on instruction

How Culinary Arts Teachers Decide What to Teach 1

The time available for hands-on instruction will certainly affect what you’re able to teach in any given period. Some high schools run instructional periods that are as little as 45 minutes long while others teach in instructional blocks with instruction lasting 1 ½ hours to 3 hours depending upon the day of the week.

Allowing for the fact that all classes have starting and ending procedures, a 45 minute period can be really short. At the start of class, teachers have to take attendance and most instructors will want to quickly review what the students will be doing in the kitchen. This could take 5-10 minutes. At the end of class students will need about 10 minutes to clean and sanitize their work stations. If they are finishing a product, they may also need time to eat as most schools have policies against students taking food out of the classroom as this creates a distraction in other classes.

If you plan 10 minutes into starting your class, ten minutes for cleaning, and five minutes for students to eat … out of a 45 minute period, this only leaves 20 minutes for hands-on production!

As a secondary level instruction teaching a 45 minute period, I’ve learned to reduce the start of class to no more than 5 minutes. I’ve also broken hands-on production into several smaller steps. For example, with the production of chocolate chip cookies, during one period each of my 5 kitchen work stations will produce the cookie dough. The dough will be stored in a zip lock bag and will be date/labeled and refrigerated. To avoid confusion, I collect all bags in a hotel pan to keep all student groups for a given period together.

On the following day, I will preheat the ovens. After setting up their stations, students will put parchment paper on sheet pans and will form the dough into cookies. The cookies will go into the oven and if the students expedite doing this (because I’m calling the time), they should be able to bake and retrieve their cookies before the end of the period.

By way of another example, when teaching mother sauces, on one day I’ve had students produce a tomato mother sauce which is then date/labeled and stored in individual plastic containers by each work station. As with the cookies, I collect the containers on sheet pans to keep them together. Each class involved with tomato sauce production will have their products stored in a refrigerator.

On the following day each group will convert the tomato mother sauce into a Marinara derivative sauce. As with the tomato mother sauce, the sauce will be stored in individual containers that are placed on sheet pans in a refrigerator.

On the third day, I tell students to get hot water onto boil over high heat ASAP. Once the water is boiling, students cook spaghetti until it’s al-dente. As they are cooking the spaghetti, the students have a choice. They may reheat yesterday’s Marinara Sauce in a microwave or they may use a sauce pan to reheat it on the stove. Regardless of which way they choose to reheat their sauce, they know that they’ll be responsible for cleaning their workstations (including all tools) prior to enjoying their food.

When instructional time is restricted by a class schedule, the only thing you can do is to break hands-on production into a series of manageable production tasks.

At the other end of the instructional spectrum are schools which are on block schedules. If you have 1 ½ hours or more to teach a class, then mother sauce production, the production of a Marinara Sauce derivative, and the production of spaghetti could all be done in one class period. Teachers with classes like this may need to find “fillers” to keep students gainfully occupied.

While working at a school in Tucson that had a 1 ½ hour instructional block, I typically gave students writing assignments to work on while they were eating. A typical assignment would have been to have students write a half page comparing/contrasting the production of a tomato mother sauce with a brown sauce. They also had to write a half page comparing/contrasting how to cook spaghetti with how to cook steamed white rice.

Your budget

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I once interviewed for a Culinary Arts teaching job at Tombstone High in Tombstone, Arizona. Although the principal and CTE director seemed keen on hiring me, I balked when I was told that my student budget would be $20 per student for the entire year. Given how many students were in the program and given the fact that they had just purchased a commercial quality deep fryer, I later estimated that the cost of purchasing 35 gallons of fryer oil would have consumed 1/20th of my entire culinary budget.

I did not accept the job offer.

During that same year, I also interviewed for a teaching position on a Navajo Reservation. When asked about my Culinary Arts budget, the assistant superintendent merely said, “sufficient.” When pressed as to how sufficient this budget might be, he told me that he never knew from year to year how much money might be available because the school relied on a variety of grants.

I did not accept this job offer either due to concerns over what might happen if no grant money was forthcoming.

Funding at the post-secondary level is typically set (in part) by student lab fees … so in theory your budget is easily calculated by multiplying the number of students by the lab fee.

Sadly, reality has a nasty way of interfering with the best laid plans. The problem with lab fees is that you have to play “lab fee police” by chasing after your students to get their lab fees paid. Unless you keep meticulous records as to who paid and who didn’t, you’re likely to have a budgetary shortfall.

If you teach in a low income area like I do, the sad reality is that a lot of these kids (as many as 30-40%) won’t be able to pay their lab fees. Parents will request “waivers” i.e. permission to not pay the fee … which is great for them but not so good for your overall program since you can’t buy Culinary Arts supplies using waiver requests.

On the brighter side, in addition to the budget, there is usually a Federal grant. Since Culinary Arts is part of Career and Technical Education, there are annual funds from a Perkin’s Grant that will put money into your program. Depending upon your total enrollment, I’ve received as little as $1500 and as much as $2500. Thrifty person that I am, I’ve based the purchase of food and cleaning supplies for one semester upon the Perkins grant (which must always be spent by the end of December). Expenses for the 2nd semester have typically been supported by lab fees.

In two instances at different districts, I’ve anticipated a budgetary shortfall due to student waiver requests. In both cases, talking to the principal several months in advance led to the funding of Culinary Arts through the school’s general fund. Since building administrators have access to discretionary funds, if you don’t blind side them with the news that your culinary budget will be at a zero balance starting next week, most administrators will work with you to make up for any reasonable budgetary shortfall. Last year, my building administrator put $1000 into my program. If she hadn’t done this, I would have cut hands-on instruction to two days per week as the only method for stretching my budget.

Your skills

Plating dish

Most Culinary Arts teachers teach to the extent of their respective ability levels. The predecessor at my current school was trained as a home economics teacher and most of what she taught her students was actually based upon textbooks coupled with inch thick stacks of worksheets that accompanied each chapter.

While interviewing for her job, I observed her prepping (without student assistance) for a teacher luncheon that involved combining supermarket purchased pulled pork with canned crushed pineapple in a crockpot for some sort of pseudo-Polynesian themed meal that she planned to serve with steamed white rice.

Since most of what she taught did not involve hands-on production, my in-coming level II students were not where they should have been at the start of the 2015-2016 school year. They didn’t have any basic knife skills. They didn’t know what the five mother sauces were or how to make them. They had never worked with meat or poultry and had never plated a single meal.

Since level II instruction was predicated upon students having basic level I skills, I had to reteach most of these skills during the first semester and only began teaching advanced skills during the subsequent semester.

Although I believe myself to be a competent instructor, my culinary background is that of casual dining. Some of my colleagues in the Clark County School District are chefs who have previously worked on the Vegas strip at Michelin star rated restaurants. While I am certainly capable of outperforming my predecessor, I’m quite certain that these Vegas experienced chefs with fine dining backgrounds can easily outperform yours truly.

Assuming we all teach to the state instructional standards, HOW WE TEACH is often governed by our respective skill levels and capabilities.

Class composition

Students in kitchen

In theory, Culinary Arts is supposed to be part of a vocational education training program. In reality, especially at the secondary level, Culinary Arts is treated as an elective. It is a sad reality that schools still cling to the idea that all graduating students should be bound for college. As you might imagine, there is a huge difference in attitude between students who want to pursue Culinary Arts as a career and students who are only taking your class as an elective.

At the secondary level, student participation in sports will also impact your class. There have been days when I’ve returned to my class after lunch to find ½ to ¾’s of my afternoon classes to be gone because of various sporting events.

Culinary Arts also seems to attract a great number of special education students. Under IDEA, (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) there are basically two types of special needs students, those with IEPs and those with 504 plans.

An IEP is an individual education plan that’s tailored for each special education student. The plan includes accommodations that every teacher at your school is required to provide. Accommodations could include having to give tests orally of allowing them to get up and leave the class if they’re feeling stressed out.

IEP plans are formed in conjunction with teacher input, the special education teacher, school administration, and the parent. By law, each child with an IEP must have his or her plan reviewed at least once each year.

Students with an IEP are from a special education class and some of them take one or two additional classes as part of their need for the development of “socialization skills.” Sometimes these students will receive a grade for your class and sometimes they won’t. It all depends upon what their IEP says.

Students on a 504 plan are special needs students who have been mainstreamed into a class. Unlike students on an IEP, they do go to special education classes. The key point for these students is the phrase, “reasonable accommodation.” By law, teachers have to meet reasonable needs which are addressed in their respective 504 plans. Examples of these needs may include preferential seating (i.e. required seating in the front of the class), have reduced assignments, or having more time to complete a given assignment.

What we teach students and how we teach them has to take into account their respective ability levels. Although it is expected that all teachers should instructionally challenge their students, some students are more challenged than others.

In forming hands-on cooperative production groups, teachers often have to consider the varying ability levels of their students. Some students have attention deficit disorders and are easily distracted. Some are learning disabled and may lack the capacity to understand and follow complex instructions. Some of the more extremely disabled students may not even be able to read.

Teachers must consider varying ability levels when teaching any given class.

Food allergies

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According to FARE, (Food Allergy Research and Education) some 15 million Americans have food allergies. For children under 18 years of age, 1 in 13 will have food allergies. Reactions can vary from a mild response (such as an itchy mouth, to anaphylaxis shock that results in respiratory failure.

Culinary Arts instructors, particularly at the secondary level, need to be sensitive to student food allergies. Most schools will provide teachers with confidential lists of students with allergies. A careful instructor will review this list, highlighting the names of anyone in a Culinary Arts class.

A few years ago while working at another school, we had a student who was hyper-allergic to peanuts. In theory, this student was so sensitive to peanuts that if I had opened a can of peanut butter in my class, the aroma of the peanuts (passed through the building through connecting vents) could have trigged anaphylaxis shock. As a preventative measure, I was banned from using any nuts or food products that contained nuts.

Eggs, dairy products, wheat gluten, nuts, and shellfish are among the leading allergies so the ingredients you use in your classroom have to be purchased with student safety in mind.


How Culinary Arts Teachers Decide What to Teach 4

Life is full of trade-offs. I made the decision several years ago to give up working in the food service industry and to spend the rest of my career teaching Culinary Arts. I gave up double shifts, having to work weekends and holidays, and having to find someone to cover for me on days when I was sick. With grading, shopping, and prepping the kitchen, I now work about a 50 hour week with weekends, holidays, and summers off. I also have a retirement program and medical benefits that include paid sick leave.

The student temperament in my classes seems to vary from year to year. For the most part, most of my students have been eager to learn. I’ve also had my share of lay-abouts who have stood around talking during a production assignment. These same students have often refused to help clean but once the production assignment is over, they’ve always been happy to eat.

Three years ago I was assigned two students who turned out to be skinheads and neo-Nazis. As white supremacists, they resented having to take instruction from a “mud person” and wound up in the office quite frequently on discipline referrals for disrespect and insubordination. They were eventually expelled after they came to schools with swastikas tattooed on their foreheads.

On the brighter side, I once received a note from a girl who told me that she was an AP student whose classes largely consisted of accelerated programs that required a lot of time and attention. She wrote that Culinary Arts was the only class she had where she could have fun and she wrote to thank me and to say that my class was the only class she ever consistently looked forward to attending.

Teaching isn’t for everyone but for those of you who are looking for a change, teaching Culinary Arts at the secondary or post-secondary level will give you some measure of relief from work related stress. Keep in mind that if you’ve never taught before, the first year can still be quite stressful, though it will be a different type of stress from the type you’ve encountered in the food service industry.

According to the National Education Association, there’s a 30% turnover of general education teachers who will quit teaching by their fifth year. Keep in mind that these are people who went through four years of undergraduate training in how to become a teacher. I don’t know if there are any statistics on teacher turnover from Career and Technical education programs. I would imagine that stress levels for novice CTE instructors who were not formally trained as teachers (having come into education through alternative certification routes) can be quite high … but if you can handle being in the weeds with a window full of tickets during a peak meal time, you can handle being a Culinary Arts instructor.

As with mise en place, teaching is simply a matter of being well organized and while there are undoubtedly some shining stars out there who were clearly born to teach, most of us (myself included) have had to learn how to do our jobs. As with anything else, the ability to teach is an acquired skill … so if you’ve been able to run a kitchen, you should be able to run a classroom.

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