Learning to Teach

Posted on June 19, 2011


Editor’s note: I’ve written and re-written the start to this post about ten times now. I kind of wish I had an animated GIF showing exactly what I typed so that you could see proof of this, but I don’t, so you’ll have to take my word for it. (Too bad, ’cause it would look really cool.) I didn’t even know what I was going to write when I sat down and started writing, and at this point, with my editorial note almost coming to an end, I’m still not sure how this post will go, beginning, middle, or end. Life is like that sometimes, too… write?

Growing up, I loved to read. Voraciously, even. As much as I loved — and still love — food, I sometimes forgot to eat, being caught up as I would be in the worlds of Verne or Melville or Tolkien. My English teachers loved the fact that I read so much… right up until they realized that I would read anything and everything, just not what they assigned me… at least, not when they assigned those readings to me. You could probably say — quite accurately — that I was a horrible student. On the other hand, to say I didn’t learn much would be very, very far from the truth.

I suppose what turned me off about formal education was the way in which it felt so formulaic, so presumptuous, as though completing certain tasks and scoring well on an exam meant that I would actually learn and retain those purportedly essential bits of knowledge. When I was in middle school, one of my older sisters, Monica, had just moved back home after graduating from college. I had these Science papers due every Tuesday, little one-page things that probably wouldn’t do much for me in the big scheme of things. Monica, on the other hand, didn’t see them that way. She would edit my writing, every Monday night, making sure my thoughts and the words that conveyed them were clear, concise, and correct. Of course, she also let me know exactly how my thoughts were jumbled, exhaustingly wordy, and grammatically incorrect. Write, edit… write, edit… write, edit… it was a game of wills in which I, carelessly, wrote with haste and simply to finish, and she, persistently, even painstakingly, edited for quality. To say my sister won out would be inaccurate; we both won, I just didn’t realize it at first. In retrospect, I can say her most astounding accomplishment through that whole endeavor was that she made me care about my writing.

Believe me, that was no mean feat.

I think I view the primary job of a teacher as just that: making someone care about what they’re learning. In coffee, that’s a task both difficult and easy. The difficulty comes because of how coffee is perceived by the masses, namely, as something cheap and easy, almost a throw-away item. On the other hand, the ease comes in part due to that very perception, since the stark difference between crappy, common coffee and wonderful coffee is so easy for almost anyone to grasp and appreciate.

Before I go any further, I must digress and point out something I’ve pondered for some months now. No matter how hard I try to justify my inclinations toward superiority on this matter, I keep coming back to the simple fact that some individuals — many individuals, in fact — just do not enjoy coffee the way I do, nor will they ever enjoy coffee the way I do. This is not a matter of being on the road toward better coffee, it is a matter of not wanting to be on that road at all. I say this because my pride sometimes gets in the way of this simple truth, and it’s always good to remind myself — even type it out if needs be — that being an outstanding coffee professional does not mean that I convince everyone, even anyone, that a six-ounce cappuccino tastes better than a sixteen-ounce latte. Stated differently, there’s nothing morally corrupt when a customer orders their drink extra-hot.

I know, I know. On with the show.

When I was chatting with Jesse the other day, I told him my approach to teaching coffee depends on the individual. Not everyone wants to learn “everything” there is about coffee, and not everyone needs to know “everything” to truly enjoy coffee, for the better, for the rest of their lives. Some just need a web address where they can purchase a good scale, grinder, and press-pot, along with a few simple instructions for press-pot brewing and maintenance, and they’ll be set for another two decades. Others, however, may need to unlearn a lot of things before they can learn anything at all, not to mention “everything.” They need, in all seriousness, to be broken down, made to cry out in frustration and anger, before they can arrive at a point where they can learn. It’s very much akin to building a skyscraper — a deep, deep, deep hole must be dug to serve as a foundation before that massive structure goes anywhere significantly vertical.

Writing all of this stuff is sort of odd for me. I’ve gotten some criticism from folks over the years in how I can seem to be rather off-putting toward those who show a little interest in learning more about coffee, those who say they want to learn more. This is true. Sometimes, I may seem to almost discourage people from pursuing coffee, perhaps even suggesting that the understanding of coffee is far too difficult to be worth chasing after. This, also, is true… I have done that. I’ll likely continue to do that, too. My reasoning is simple: I don’t want to waste anyone else’s time, and I certainly don’t want to waste mine. If someone wants to learn, really wants to learn, I’ve come to believe that they’ll prove it, they’ll show it. They won’t give up, they’ll keep caring, they’ll keep chasing after a better cup. I freely give out my email address to those with questions, and even though I don’t always answer the first time, I do sincerely try to take the time to answer — at length, as often as it takes — someone who earnestly asks questions and listens to my answers.

I really do believe that I can teach anyone who wants to learn; creating and cultivating that unquenchable desire to learn, however, is the real task.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some unassigned reading to do.

Posted in: Coffee