Waiting and Teaching

As I walked around my students in the computer lab recently, I realized that some things I no longer include on my resume actually have helped set me up to be a better teacher. When I was in high school, like most young people, my parents felt I should get a job to learn about money and work. At that time, I had more energy than any person should have and tended to exude a bubbly personality. So I got a job as a waitress at a pizza buffet.

Previously, I always thought I had gained only two things from this job: the knowledge that smiling a lot helps calm [most] people down and an addiction to over-tipping. Turns out, I learned a lot about managing chaos and picking up on nuances of individuals.

Since I don’t smoke and my parents would not get me a cell phone (“I’ve never had one and somehow I survived…”), while I was at work, I worked. I spent very little time in the back room where the cooks were and relatively little time at the waitress stand.  In order to feel efficient and to ward off boredom, I made myself available. I did odd jobs in the seating area and made the rounds quite often-almost to the point of being annoying.

I did not always stop to ask “Can I get you anything?” because sometimes all I needed to do was walk past and gauge and anticipate any potential needs or wants. There are, of course, obvious signs like a bunch of dirty plates or a nearly empty glass. But you also learn to see when someone is thinking of asking for something. Sometimes I just needed to walk by so they could let me know of an issue I could not predict on my own, but that they would not seek me out to address.

When I roam through the room during independent or small group work, I feel almost exactly the same way. Sometimes you can almost see the question forming on a students lips or the puzzled expression revealing itself in their eyes. Perhaps it’s more obvious, like a blank page after 5-10 minutes of work time. Maybe it’s less obvious than that. Either way, after making the effort to learn your students, you can often tell when you just need to walk by or when you need to stop and directly as an individual student how things are going and if they need anything. Some kids might not bother to check for clarification if it involves walking all the way up to the teacher’s desk (for many students, I’m afraid this seems to be intimidating and/or embarrassing), but if you are right by their desk, they might just whisper that question and thereby enhance their understanding somehow.

Just like as a waitress, I couldn’t stay in the back room or the waitress stand (yup, the pizza place I worked at was sexist and chauvenistic and only hired young girls…) and expect to offer high quality service, I cannot sit at my desk all the time and expect to improve student learning. Even when I may seem annoying in my wandering through the room, I need to be accessible and not wait for students to come to me. This is helpful for student learning, engagement, and classroom management. Sure, it’s basic stuff, but I think it’s always a good reminder.

And hey, give a good tip. 🙂


12 responses to this post.

  1. If only our students were better tippers…


  2. I love it! Waiting tables and serving people as an analog for meeting student needs. I think your expression of the similar nuances in restaurant patrons and students is as astute as it is original. I was never a waiter, but I was a grocery bag boy and had to “wander the aisles” in Hy-Vee as one of the “helpful smiles” and there were similar tasks. Sure I could sit and wait to bag, but then I would’ve never gotten all those compliments from old ladies (we couldn’t get tips)!

    Great post Candace!


  3. Posted by Sarah Pence on January 18, 2010 at 7:05 am

    I TOTALLY agree that skills from jobs that seem unrelated to education come in handy in the classroom. Take, for example, those six years of dealing with poo! Nothing like watching a kid struggle to pull an excuse out of his rear! 🙂


  4. As a former waitress myself (and at a few chauvanistic establishments as well), I love the post!!! So, so true.


  5. Posted by Faith on January 30, 2010 at 5:55 pm

    This is beautiful. As a person who never wants to “bother” anyone, a teacher walking by asking me if there was something I needed clarification on would have been very heart-warming 🙂 I’d just sit there usually and try to figure it out. I guess that’s good for learning, but I could have spent time expanding on the issue rather than trying to figure out one little nuance. As for the sexist thing, I know I prefer to be served by females, especially ones who look healthier. It seems better for business if you hire a wait staff that makes the customers feel comfortable. I don’t know if they mistreated the girls there, but I’m just saying, I know that’s all it is, sometimes.


  6. Posted by Indrani on February 3, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    If only more teachers thought like you. Unfortunately teaching these days seems to have become a drag and a waiting area for most teachers.


  7. Posted by 4wardthinking on February 3, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    SO True! What a fantastic analogy! I have lived the same experience (all the way from the pizza buffet to the need to walk around the classroom)! Thanks for putting it into words. I found myself smiling, nodding along, and feeling the truth in my heart the whole time!


  8. Posted by Mr. P on February 3, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Ditto to your post and the comments. I waited, and will again I’m sure, tables throughout my undergrad and reading your guests translates to reading your students while they are working.


  9. I really enjoyed reading your post. You have really shown how a student’s needs are very similar to those needs of a customer. I know how boring it can be working in a pizza restaurant. I really believed that the skills you had as a waitress really helped you to succeed as a teacher. Especially since you are able to just walk by and know when someone is in need of assistance. Students need a teacher who just sits at his/her desk and shows no interest in the students. I think that all teachers need to use your way of helping students during their work time in class. Not all students are brave enough to walk up to the teacher’s desk and ask for help. It is comforting to know that a teacher loves their job enough to put effort and do a little exercise during class.


  10. Hi, my name is Brittani and I am a student at the University of South Alabama. I have been assigned to keep up with and read your blog. I really enjoyed this post! I love the way you use your job as a pizza girl and applied it to your teaching position today. I am studying to be an elementary educator at the University right now and currently am working at an insurance company. I know insurance and kids have nothing to do with each other but I too feel like I am learning skills that will benefit me in my later occupation. For instance I work in customer service and not everyone that calls into the office is such a happy camper. I however am trained to deal with upset people and I feel like this will help me in a major way for the future. I will be dealing with parents 24/7 when I become a teacher. Regardless of them being satisfied or not so happy with me as a teacher. I feel way more prepared than someone who has never dealt with people before. Also I love the end message about not relying on students to ask for help. I have always been that kid. When I didn’t understand something in school I was way too scared of looking like an idiot in front of my classmates to ask a question or walk up to the teachers desk. Id would have rather sat there not knowing. If there would have been a teacher like you who walked around the classroom checking on students I feel like I could have done WAY better! The strange thing is that I never really thought about this until now. Im so glad that I got a chance to read this blog where I can be more aware of students that might need extra help or that might be too scared to ask themselves. Also I will be eventually posting on my class blog about what I learned from reading various post on your site. If you would like to see what I say or just take a look at some other post feel free! It is at milliganbrittaniedm310.blogspot.com.


  11. Mrs. Follis I love this post!!! I am a “career” waitress, I have been doing this since I was eighteen and I know exactly what you are talking about. i work at The Hangout in Gulf Shores, AL. and I serve hundreds of people a night. I know the expressions and the tones of voice, I have learned a lot about people and how to deal with them in this job. I know that when I graduate I will be able to use these skills to deal with my students different wants and needs. I have learned so much about chaos management working in the restaurant business, I know that this will help me control my class should the day ever come that they get to “wild”. Think about how much servers have in common with teachers ; We deal with lots of people everyday, who depend on us to make their time in that establishment worth while, we tailor to each individuals needs and we don’t get paid very much for it. I think I might put down waitress on my resume….


  12. Mrs. Follis,

    I really enjoyed reading your post; I have been a waitress at Ruby Tuesday for the past two years, and I can relate to everything you mentioned. As an experienced waitress, I must admit that I am really excited to hear how your experiences in the serving business have supplemented your teaching strategies. Although I probably implement my serving habits without really noticing, it’s really nice to see that it will help me in my future when I have my own classroom. I, too, am in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama, and I am ecstatic that it helped me come across your blog. Please feel free to look over mine, and let me know what you think.

    Jessica Ferris


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