By Dana Clerkin 2016-06-10 07:01:02
When training responsibilities evolve into an unexpected vocation, magic happens for both the teacher and the student. STOP! BEFORE YOU READ THIS ARTICLE, take a moment and ask yourself this question: What teacher inspired me the most? Was it Mr. Martin, the coach of the high school debate team who recognized you were good at thinking on your feet? Maybe it was Mrs. Jefferson who guided you through a rocky semester of algebra? Perhaps it came more recently, when Ms. Gibson, a trainer of a two-day workshop on nutrition, complimented your people skills and told you that you had the makings of a motivating leader? Inspiration, by definition, is the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions. Whomever you cite as your favorite teacher, counselor, mentor or trainer, she or he probably fell into one of two categories as someone who: 1. provided you with the knowledge and skills in a course of study that opened up a whole new world or 2. gave you the confidence and opportunity for you to excel in something. Your favorite teacher had the power to move your intellect or your emotions—or both. WHY TEACH? Ah-ha moments. Magic. Discovery. Light bulbs turning on. Hugs. Influence. Role model. Passion…the list is endless if you ask someone why they teach. Answers vary for every person who teaches or trains, but the fundamental core of why they teach is consistent: They want to change lives. And while some may have known they wanted to be teachers when they played school as children, others did not set out to be educators. It was not their career ambition. But somewhere along the way, they developed not only a knack for training, but also a love of it. For those whose careers did not start out in teaching, they likely transitioned to it by way of expanded job responsibilities, a move from full-time to self-employment or a desire to create an “encore” career. These paths hold especially true in the school nutrition profession, where the opportunities for knowledge-sharing, mentoring, building confidence or simply helping someone be a little better at what they do are plentiful! UNEXPECTED DESTINATIONS Many school nutrition professionals who have become educators didn’t leap “full-grown” into training. They evolved, often through different experiences provided in their full-time school nutrition careers. It’s a gradual process that doesn’t necessarily look like a series of steps toward a destination. It may have started by needing to personally lead a training session for managers throughout the district about new meal requirements, because there were no funds for an outside trainer. But maybe that experience led to agreeing to serve on a roundtable discussion at a state meeting. And that experience might have ignited an interest in submitting a proposal to present at a national conference. And presence at the national meeting turned into an opportunity to bring great ideas to share with staff in a training back home in the district. Without warning, being an educator becomes a niche and, perhaps, a passion. But enough with abstract stories. School Nutrition invites you to hear from—and be inspired by—stories of three teacher/trainers (and motivators extraordinaire) for whom education was not a chosen career path, at least not at first. JoAnne Robinett, MSA, SNS, has established America’s Meal, a child nutrition consulting and training company, but continues to be amazed that she “gets to” teach, train and motivate after 32 years in school nutrition, most of them spent in district-level operations. Phyllis Hodges, MPS, SNS, director of School Nutrition Programs for the Tennessee Department of Education, whose career spans 28 years in school nutrition, says she never saw herself as an educator when she graduated college with a degree in nutrition science. Gabriela Pacheco, RDN, LD, SNS, who owns Gabriela Pacheco Nutrition Consulting, is less surprised by her career evolution, as she’s always been comfortable speaking in front of a group and driven by a fervent desire to be a great teacher, one that doesn’t “just teach you; they change you.” Here they share their career paths, teaching to-dos (and not-to-dos) and their own “ah-ha” moments inside and out of the classroom. While they were interviewed separately, SN wants you to hear their stories and advice in their own words. GETTING HERE FROM THERE Robinett: As I became involved in the Association, I would volunteer to [lead] sessions at [chapter] meetings. That’s how I started as a trainer/presenter. Then, as a director, I would conduct training for my staff. I also loved going to SNA conferences and witnessing how certain presenters connected with the audience by not putting on airs about being an “expert.” They just shared what they knew in a friendly, relaxed way. That helped me see myself in front of the room. Hodges: I didn’t know there was a career path in school nutrition, nor did I take any education courses in college, so I was totally unprepared to be an educator [in school nutrition]. I came into [the profession] in 1988, straight from being a mom and helping on the family farm. As I began to get my feet wet in my role as a district director, I learned quickly that my staff would function much better, and I would not have to work as hard, if they were better prepared to do their jobs. We began a long process of providing training courses to give them the tools and resources they needed and provide professional growth. Pacheco: As a registered dietitian, the clinical setting wasn’t my passion. I have worked with children with cerebral palsy, diabetes, eating disorders and, later, with adult gestational diabetics. Eighteen years ago, I went to work with Albuquerque Public Schools, because I wanted to continue working with children, but in a more preventative approach. I fell in love with all of it—the challenges and the rewards. I was in charge of training our foodservice staff of 650. So, not only did I have to be a quick study, I had to turn around and teach a diverse group. LIGHT BULB MOMENTS Interview an educator, ask why he or she loves to teach, and the odds are excellent that the reason lies in the opportunity to witness when a student “gets it.” In school nutrition, with adult learners, it’s no different. Robinett: What I love the most is when I actually see the light bulb turn on over someone’s head. I have taught food safety to people who thought they knew it already, and when an example I give makes them understand what had not even dawned on them before—the discovery gives me just as much energy as it does them. Pacheco: My favorite part is when I connect with the audience. There are several ways of connecting. Body language is so much more important than spoken language. When someone makes eye contact, nods their head or, better yet, opens their eyes wide because they just learned something new—that is rewarding! Hodges: I love seeing people get it. I love that point where someone says, “Wow, I never knew that” or “I never thought about it that way.” Within any teaching opportunity, there should be a chance for multiple moments of inspiration. That is what continues to be exciting about teaching and training. We have a lot of new staff at the state agency right now. Those teachable moments are coming up constantly [for me], which is exciting and rewarding. PREP STEPS Without formal instruction in the art of teaching, how do you develop best practices in the classroom or conference room? Once you have recognized that you possess the ability to successfully impart your expert knowledge, it’s time to do your research, prepare your materials, gather your equipment and then, as all three trainers advise, “learn to use it.” Hodges: Get to know your material—printed, PowerPoint, video, whatever you will be using. Get to know more than what is in the material. What context can you bring to the table? Do not come to a training prepared to read to the participants—come prepared to discuss the material and encourage participation. Broaden their knowledge, but don’t try to do too much in the time allowed. Rehearse the steps to be sure you can cover everything. Start and end on time and discuss ground rules at the beginning of the training. Establish expectations of the audience. Do not lecture or talk down to the participants, and include everyone in the experience. It will enrich their learning. Pacheco: Knowing your audience is critical—this means knowing their level of education and knowledge base in the subject matter, as well as any possible language barriers. We have quite a multilingual school nutrition environment, so it’s important to communicate with everyone in this audience. Keep it simple—less is more. It’s best not to have too much information on your slides; simply use them as a guide and don’t read from them. Have your own notes ready to refer to, but look at your audience most of the time. Stay on point but always have a “Plan B.” Don’t [rely on] the AV equipment to be perfect; save your presentation in multiple formats. Robinett: You have to prepare. If I am conducting a training someone else has put together, I go over every page and get acquainted with it, especially if there are activities. If I am creating a training, I find I spend 40 hours behind the scenes to put together a one-hour session. I was not educated to be a trainer; I knew nothing about what was involved, or how you go about putting a lesson together. I thought that teachers just knew everything about the subject. Well, that is daunting. How can you know everything!? So, I felt I was not qualified to even talk about nutrition to first-grade students when I was a manager. I asked for help from a friend who is a school nurse. She said, “I have a lesson plan that will be perfect for this.” Lesson plan!? Wait, you don’t have to know everything? You can get a plan—with notes and helpful advice!? That was my light bulb moment. I can train! MY FAVORITE THINGS Like every student, instructors have their favorite subjects. They perform better and their excitement becomes contagious when they get to teach a few of their favorite things. Pacheco: My favorite topic to teach is self-help by way of nutrition/wellness classes. [School nutrition professionals] already have so many regulations to learn, so I think they enjoy learning how to care for themselves, as well. My approach is “How can you be a good role model for your students, if you are not well yourself?” I believe healthy employees are employees with better attitudes, who can then provide better customer service. In most of my nutrition classes, I include several short exercise breaks. We get up and dance for a few minutes, we do easy Pilates or we even do exercises while sitting. These are the classes where I get the most questions and feedback, because it is personal. Robinett: I love to motivate. I love being the conference keynote speaker that helps staff see that they have an important role in their community. I want them to know they do a great job filling that role, even if they don’t feel appreciated by some people in the school district. A lot of my sessions raise awareness about working and growing together; I have loved creating and delivering those. I also enjoy teaching sessions that I did not create, and most of those deal with food safety. I am a certified ServSafe instructor and a trainer for “Food Safety in Schools” for the Institute of Child Nutrition. I firmly believe that food safety is the number-one priority for our staff. It doesn’t matter if you work well as a team or if you have great customer service or if your meals are compliant with every USDA requirement. Nothing matters if the food you are serving makes someone sick! So, even though these are usually long, hard training days, it is rewarding to me to know that I have helped to make the incidence of a foodborne illness less likely. Hodges: I love to train on leadership-related topics. I think everyone has the potential to be a leader, and we often lead in many ways that we do not recognize. Helping school nutrition professionals understand who they are and how they make a difference is important to me. THAT CERTAIN SOMETHING Circling back to the beginning of this article, to the teacher who inspired you the most—what was his or her best quality? It probably had less to do with subject matter expertise and more to do with the connection you felt. Perhaps it was a matter of empathy. Maybe it was a positive mental attitude, mesmerizing verbal skills, passion, emotion, eye contact, animated body language or respect. Do you have “it”—that certain something—in you? Have you felt an internal nudge to pay your own experiences in school nutrition forward by volunteering to teach or train at work or at an Association meeting? If you want to do more, and if teaching is one of your strengths, don’t hesitate to capitalize on this glimmer of interest and expertise. The day a teacher realizes that they have been given a great gift—the power to change lives—is the day an inspirational teacher is born. Dana Clerkin is a freelance writer based in Oriental, N.C. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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