I Teach Electives; They’re No Joke
A high school teacher explains that her classes are just as valuable as reading, writing and arithmetic.
Ever since I was in middle school, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I loved my high school experiences, especially those afforded by my elective teachers. This included two teachers who both taught “Parenting Decisions” and a “Food for Thought” class. Each day, I lived for these classes. I loved learning about the psychology of people, how babies develop, different parenting styles and, of course, the vast world of culinary studies.
I would soak up the information like a sponge, always curious and always wanting to understand more. When I started college, I knew I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my high school teachers and teach Family and Consumer Science (FACS) courses. Little did I know that this program was taught overwhelmingly by older females. The rate of new teachers entering the program was so low that it was discontinued at my university the year that I moved home and began student teaching.
When I started applying for jobs nearly ten years ago, I noticed that each high school offered varied but limited FACS courses, including many I hadn’t been exposed to during my student teaching. For example, I continuously saw open positions for classes such as “Sewing 101,” “Interior Design” or “Life Management.” This made it very difficult to find high school FACS jobs within a state to which I would consider packing up and moving.
I couldn’t justify teaching a subject about which I wasn’t passionate.
Finally, after many days searching for courses I wanted to teach and a handful of interviews later, I found a high school position teaching “Culinary Nutrition” and “International Cuisine.” I uprooted my life from the Midwest to the East Coast and started my teaching career in Southern Maryland.
Electives Have Real Value
At the start of my first year teaching, students always would say, “This class doesn’t really mean anything” or “I don’t even need this class to graduate” or “All we do in this class is cook, right? That’s why I signed up.” To hear that my class was a “joke” was disheartening, but I knew my classes were valuable and wanted students to be as passionate about the subject as I was. I took it upon myself to prove to students that my class was important and provided a skill that everyone should acquire during their high school career.
In staff meetings, I would hear the push for standardized testing, prep for SAT and ACT, and guarantees that students covered everything in the Common CORE before they graduated. Math, science, English and social studies were always hot topics of conversation. After-school tutoring and credit recovery were promoted for students in order to get extra help, pass courses and check all the boxes along the way. This left elective classes as a last resort for students if they had room in their schedule or needed an elective credit to graduate. Class sizes were kept small and some students were “placed” in my classroom in order to meet their graduation requirements.
As any teacher does their first year, I was determined to have the most interactive, fun and varied lesson plans that I could possibly fit into a 48-minute class period. I stayed up until 11 p.m. most nights working tirelessly on the perfect plan that all students would comprehend and love. Each day, running on little-to-no sleep, I would get into work an hour early to set up and have everything laid out. I was young and enthusiastic, but also naive: Most students were focused more on their other classes, home lives, jobs, putting food on the table and personal relationships.
I quickly realized during my first year that my classes were neither a priority for a majority of students nor were they a part of the big picture of our school.
I Got Creative and My Students Responded
However, stepping back and looking at the curriculum, I also saw how easy it was to use real-life experiences to create more engaging lessons. For our “Safety and Sanitation” unit, I bought a black light and glowing gel to demonstrate the spread of germs and the benefits of thorough hand-washing. I found recipes that required more culinary skills than mere baking. I showed pictures of architecture, history and cuisine and told stories of international trips that I had taken—even though some of my students never had left the East Coast. I assisted students in hosting a luncheon for their teacher of choice and had students execute a meal as well as set the table properly.
By grasping what students needed to learn to function on their own and presenting it creatively, my class numbers started to grow. Students realized that they wanted to take a course where they could eat, but also learn how to follow a recipe, know if the food is healthy and broaden their views towards other cultures. I would hear students in the hallways say, “I want to learn how to cook for my girlfriend” or “Did you know it’s a lot cheaper to cook a meal than go out?” or “I hope to travel to Italy one day and try their pasta.” Once students realized the benefits of my class and really started enjoying it, word spread like wildfire to their friends. My classes became filled with 30 students in each, with a waiting list for any available spaces.
Over my nine years of teaching, I’ve come to understand gaps in students’ knowledge as it relates to basic life skills. A number of students begin my class not knowing about healthy eating, for instance, or basic culinary or knife skills or being able to budget and prepare their own meals. Many people believe that students just will “learn” these everyday life skills throughout the course of their lives. Unfortunately, most don’t.
As I hear my students acknowledge the importance of my classes, how they master cooking alone and understand proper nutrition and lifelong health, I smile knowing that my job prepares them for the future. I don’t teach FACS classes just because I love them; I teach them to see the growth of students from start to finish. Electives should be a requirement for all students in order to graduate because electives, too, teach skills that prepare students to function in today's ever-changing society.