Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What makes a good teacher?

Something happened yesterday that made me stop and think about this.

I stopped into a local cooking school to pick up some flavored oil. It’s owned by a woman who ran a catering biz for years, and decided that she wanted to teach. It’s a pretty neat little place. During the transaction, I asked her a question about pie crust.

I’m happy with my pie crust, but I don’t really understand why it works. And, not surprisingly, in addition to being a curious knitter, I am also a curious cook. So I asked the owner, “I make my pie crust by doing [x], but I don’t really understand why that makes such a difference. Do you know?”

Before I had even finished my question, she was shaking her head. “That’s not the way you do it," she said. "Here’s what you have to do…” and proceeded to tell me about her method.

“But wait,” I said, “I’ve tried that, and it didn’t work.” I mentioned an example of why her method didn’t work for me.

“Well, I don’t know what to tell you,” she said, “because that’s the key. That’s how you make good pie crust.”

Now I should mention, my point here is not how to make a good pie crust. It’s about how to share information with others in a way that leaves them feeling good, in addition to feeling better-informed. (As you might guess, this is my goal in teaching knitting methods.) Although I have no doubt that the owner of the cooking school only wanted to help me to make better pie crust, and wanted me to feel good about that, I left feeling not good. This puzzled me. She probably knows a lot more about pie crusts than I do, and here she was giving me the benefit of her experience, for free. Why did I not come away from the exchange feeling good about it?

Well, I have a theory. I suspect that any given student, no matter how well or how poorly she understands a given subject matter to begin with, will have a better learning experience if the teacher starts by listening, rather than talking. That is the kind of teacher I aspire to be. Certainly when it comes to knitting, there are so many different ways of doing the same basic thing, who am I to say there's one way to do Jeny's Surprisingly Stretchy Bindoff? Oakdryad on Ravelry figured out you can do JSSBO with a crochet hook. What a great insight, I wish I'd thought of that!

I think it would have made all the difference if the owner of the cooking school had showed even a little interest (even if she had to fake it!) in what I was doing now. Her immediate response was “Stop right there, there’s one way to do it, and here’s what it is.” I know she meant well. But the meta-message was: “I’m not interested in hearing what you do, because if you’re not doing it this way, you’re doing it wrong.”

I never would have guessed that in striking up a conversation about how to make pie crust, I would come away with such a rich collection of musings on the kind of teacher I want to be. And her tips on pie crust were quite useful, too!


  1. Pie Crust--like lots of things comes in different styles. some are tender (a good quality) some are flakey (and some don't like too flaky!) some are drier (and great with 'wet' pies--like custards)
    some are moister and crumbly (not flaky)almost like a dry, not too sweet cookie--they often include egg!)

    my mother made great pie crusts(well to my way of thinking!) --and used almost the same recipe --only she used 50/50 lard and butter. (lard is more crystilian and makes a flaker crust)

    if you invest in a marble board, and chill it (and the dough) it will stick even less. (with a minimum of flour)--and dust your rolling pin, too!

    mmm, pie! right up there with bacon as an all purpose wonder food!

  2. You are right about the teaching bit and listening. I teach classical Chinese, and every time the students come up with some exotic translation and interpretation of a sentence, I ask them to talk me through it. Usually they then figure out that not all the grammar is accounted for in their translation, and they discover (with a bit of assistance) how to get where I want them. I could just stop them in their tracks and say "nope, and this is what it should be", but what would they learn from that? Understanding where mistakes and failures come from is as important for the teacher as the student.

  3. Jeny, first, I can't thank you enough for that wonderful loose bind off. I've been knocking my head for a toe up bind off and this is wonderful. I used the same bind off for a lace shawl and it worked much better than any other. Now, whoever figured out how to do it with a crochet hook is genius, I can't wait to do that. And thank you so much for sharing this tip and everything you do!!

  4. Jeny, thank you so much for your kind mention! I was so excited to try your bind off, and it is indeed magic. I should mention that I tend to be a tight knitter, so I was just having some trouble lifting the YO and processed stitch together.

    But when I used the crochet hook (of a comparable size to the knitting needle) as the right hand needle, it really did make all the difference for me. I process the stitch as you suggest, then pull the newly processed stitch through the YO/previously processed stitch with the hook. It makes the BO effortless for me. :-)

    FWIW, I recently did something similar when I was purling 5 together (not a nupp, but a similar notion) and it was pure magic. If I ever move to Estonian lace, I know how I'll work the nupps.

    Thank you again for your genius bind off.

  5. When I was in college learning to be a non-exciting teacher...I had a non-traditional professor tell me "there are no bad students, only bad teachers". From him I leaned that to teach well, your job was to empower the student with the tools they needed to find their way (not necessarily your way).

  6. As a toe-up sock knitter, I'm thrilled with your SSBO. However, I guess I'll stick with my own pie crust, which uses Crisco rather than butter and is my favorite pie crust. I used to make a pie crust mix using 16 cups of flour and a whole can of Crisco and 8 tsp. of salt - enough for 8 or 9 pies, so that all I had to do was measure 2 cups of this mix with 1/4 cup ice water anytime I wanted to make pies. (Didn't have to measure the shortening every time.) I started making it when my children were little...almost 60 years ago. I roll it out on a floured cloth with a cloth sock over the rolling pin.

    You learned the greatest thing from your encounter with the cooking teacher...much more important than anything you could ever have learned about pie crust, which is a most personal thing.

  7. That pie crust recipe is very similar to mine! My only difference is that I use both water and vodka to make the crust stick together. Since vodka is tasteless, and alcohol has such a low boiling point, the vodka boils away quickly and I have less risk of a soggy crust.

    But I think pie crust is intensley personal - people have had the same reaction you describe when I tell people how I make my crust. I figure, as long as my recipe tastes good and achieves the final pie result in the way I want it to, it ain't broke, and I ain't fixin' it. :)

    As far as the science of pie crust goes, the butter/lard/fat in the crust is what creates the flakes - that's why it's important to have lumps, and not mix the crust until it's homogenous.

  8. I love your pie crust recipe as it contains no shortening!! Your pie looks great!

    Thanks for sharing the story - I've been teaching more lately and it was very helpful. I left feeling GREAT!

  9. Awesome booby socks, tech-knit-geekery, teaching insight, and pie, all in the first 3 posts. I heart your blog!

  10. Love your insight on what makes an effective teacher. Some tips for pie crust that I can share:
    * start with and keep your ingredients as cold as possible. This is to prevent the fats from melting into the flour which will create a crumbly/greasy texture.

    *don't overwork the dough to uniformity. This will create excessive gluten and gluten = elasticity = tough crust. Good for bread, not for pastry.

    * if the dough starts getting too soft while you're working it, slide it onto a cookie sheet and put it in the fridge or freezer for a few minutes to firm up.

    * after putting pie dough in the pan, refrigerate again for about 30 min. This relaxes the gluten and will minimize shrinkage when baking.

    I highly recommend the Pie and Pastry Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. She is fanatically detailed about explaining the how and why of pie crusts.

  11. Another tip: I roll my pie dough between lightly floured sheets of plastic wrap. No sticking to the board and transfer to the pie pan is much easier.

  12. Good insights - when I teach knitters, especially beginners, I always emphasize that there are many many ways to do almost everything in knitting, and I am showing them the way that works for me. On the why questions regarding cooking, I love the Cooks Illustrated website or America's test kitchen. It tells you all about the why of almost everything. And there is a book on the Chemistry of Baking out there, but I haven't read it yet.

  13. AMEN!!!! I think being a good teacher means being open-minded! If you can swing that, you might just learn a thing or two yourself!!! My pie crusts have always been disastrous...perhaps I shall try again : )

  14. I love reading thoughts on teaching from of teachers of "craft".

    I agree. I think one of the most important parts of learning is listening. I have learned so much from my students over the years. I would not be the teacher that I am today without the input of my students.

    When I teach a class I look at it as a special event for the student. They have taken their hard-earned money and time and decided to spend it with me.

    I try and look at it from their point of view. Imagining how they are getting their materials together, checking the class description, and eagerly anticipating the things that they will learn.

    It's an event, a special occasion. I want their expectations to be fulfilled so they will walk away from class feeling great!

  15. I, too, use the 50/50 of lard and butter. I also use a pastry frame and rolling pin cover. I used to be horrible at pie crust until I changed to these things. And the name of a techy book on cooking is "Cookwise". I can't tell you if there's anything in there specifically about pie crust because I'm away from all my cookbooks right now. Even if it doesn't, it is a wonderful book to learn lots of other stuff about cooking.