Thursday, July 18, 2013

In Memory: Four lessons I learned from Chef Bruce Chandler

Lesson One:  It’s about the food (which isn't just food).

I’m not even sure how many workshops I've led, which is strange – not so much that I don’t know the number, but that I would lead them in the first place. Speaking in front of others distresses me; I always feel like it’s presumptuous of me – what do I have to say that others don’t already know or know better? But somehow I began leading workshops and speaking at conferences.  One thing that eases my anxiety is to ensure that good food is organized for the participants; it seems that these people are doing me such an honour in coming to listen to me and to share their thinking that it is the least I can do.

Chef Bruce Chandler at John Barsby has always been my “go to” caterer.  He had a standing joke whenever he saw me: “What are you doing this weekend – organizing your Christmas Day seminar?”  I’d always reply that people only came to my seminars to eat his food, so Christmas Day wouldn't work unless he was working.  And it’s true that in any evaluation participants filled in, they waxed most enthusiastic about the food.

But the food, of course, isn't just food, I realized as I watched and worked with Chef over the years: feeding people deliciously prepared and presented food says they matter (a box of Tim Horton’s doughnuts tossed on the table doesn't count); eating together says we are a community. People noticed the food because of the message it sends that is much more important than any message from my presentation:  we are a community; we are gathering to think together about what’s important to us, to take time to lean on each other, to learn from each other, to gather strength, to renew hope.  Food, especially food prepared with Chef’s hearty laughter and open lovingness (and I’m beginning to think these were his secret perfect ingredients), signifies community.  And once you are a community, you can begin to work together on what matters.

Lesson Two: It’s not about what you do, it’s that you do it together.

I suppose what got me started on presenting is my enthusiasms.  I would try something new as a teacher and watch its impact on students and be so excited that I would be willing to look past my fears and worries to share it.  I have presented on literacy strategies and assessment strategies and writing strategies and brain research and technology and more.    But over the past few years, as I watch people embrace and abandon various “next ‘new’ things,” I've been trying to figure out what really makes a difference for learners. Thinking about Chef has made me realize that it’s definitely not the strategies.

At John Barsby, I was part of an amazing staff.  We got together frequently (fueled by delicious treats from Chef) to discuss and agree on various ideas to support success in our school.  We agreed to learn about and implement common reading strategies and lesson structures; we set up school-wide assessments that we marked as a team, then co-built plans and interventions based on our reflections. Using provincial exams, we tracked our progress in reading: in 2002, 53% of our grade 10 students were not yet meeting expectations for reading comprehension; after five years of committed focus together, in 2007, only 7% of our students were not yet meeting expectations.  This is a miraculous shift that is life-changing for students; with strong reading skills, doors open to the future of their dreams.

At first I thought it was the things we were doing: the reading strategies and tools, the focus on writing across the curriculum, common assessments and shared rubrics (and I have plenty of slick presentations to show this).  But now I realize that none of that mattered – or, at least, it mattered only in a secondary way.  What came first is that we did it together as a whole staff.  And Chef was always in the picture.  He never missed a marking session (although we always had to talk him out of failing students who couldn't spell well). Indeed, Chef always participated in whatever was important in the school, supported initiatives and actively embodied the principles of teamwork.

Because it isn't enough to be a community, although it's a first step.  You have to build a team next, a team with a clear goal and game plan. And then, I am realizing, anything is possible.  But it's not easy to be a team. Most of us, really, don't know what it takes. Barsby Bulldogs' quarterback Patrick Doyle, I think, explains it best when he was describing their BC high school championship team (another Barsby miracle, and of course, Chef was a big part of the Bulldog support system): "This is a team with no ego. We stick together. We play for each other. We play as one." Chef showed us every day – his students and the rest of us - how to be a team player.

This is what I've learned:  it’s being a team that matters to do work that matters.

Lesson Three:  It takes a village. Really.

Over the years, I've learned to have less faith in my teaching and more faith in the team.  It started when I saw a pattern.  When I taught the students who struggled most, no matter how much success they had in my class, no matter how much they improved as readers and writers and learners, some of them would still fall into negative behaviours again. I began to realize that I could tell at the beginning of the year who would continue to succeed: they were the ones with strong connections and commitments in the school – and one of the best markers for success was the chef training program.

In the kitchen with Chef, these students had daily successes and a sense of accomplishment in a community that works together. This positive learning in, as one former student put it, the "safe, supportive, hilarious and fun space he created" spilled into every facet of their school experience.  And they understood purpose. Every year, I ask students to write about how they would improve school.  Make it relevant, they tell me.  If only, they’d say, English was more like chef training, where we do something, where we gain experience and skills that matter.  One student wrote: “I feel that what we are taught in school is good for some of us, maybe even most who want to go to university or college. But for the ones that are not I feel that there are very limited courses to help them succeed right out of high school into a job.”  The exception are kids who trained with Chef – Nanaimo restaurants are filled with his students.  And many of them go on to college for further education, another miracle for so many students who were not even on track to finish high school.  

This is what I've learned: all the learning methods that I've touted in all those workshops will only work if students have adults who care about them and support them in a passion or goal to achieve.  And for that to happen, you really need a team.  You need a team for each student.  And you need to play as one.

Lesson Four:  It’s all about noticing each other.  

And how do you get to be a team? Food, yes.  Working together, yes.  Coordinating your plays, yes.  But this year, I've realized it’s something simpler and yet more vital: noticing each other.

This past year, I had a frustrating struggle with illness; it was one thing after another.  Whenever he ran into me, Chef would ask how I was, if I’d seen a doctor, if I was ready to go on his fool-proof cheesecake diet that, he’d say, would cure what ailed me.  Sometimes I would go to the cafeteria for a pick-me-up – not for the coffee (although it was always delicious) – but for Chef’s cheerful smile, his noticing! You sound a little less nasally today, he’d say.  And I’d feel like someone despite the rush and hurry of school, despite the stack of marking, the fatigue from illness; I’d feel uplifted and ready again. I was noticed.

And so it was for his students, too.  As one student wrote:  “He knew what all my classes were and made sure I didn't skip any of them. If he caught me in the cafeteria when I wasn't supposed to be there he made me go back to class.”  He noticed.  And his noticing made all the difference for teachers and kids.

What I've learned is that a team, a winning team, always has to notice what’s going on with each other. And that just makes sense if you are going to play as one, if you are going to play for each other, if you play with no ego.  Chef, I realize, showed us how to play as a team: help, pitch in, smile, give each other nick-names (Chef’s specialty), show up, laugh, give bear hugs, notice.  Always.

Most of us aren't very good at noticing.  We see what’s obvious.  We notice the flash and the front-men and women, the people who put on seminars.  We attribute success to outside things, like research-based ideas from some university or exemplary practices from another country.   But success is always inside; it’s the heart of a person, a team, a community.

One thing I’m only noticing now is that Chef Bruce Chandler was a linchpin: in the complex structure of our school, with his ready laugh, his ever-present smile, his kind eyes, his trays of fruit, gourmet meals, once-a-year poutine, the never-empty pot of coffee, his loving teaching, his willingness to help in every facet of the school’s operation, he kept everyone together.  He made it possible for the staff to play strong every year in a game that matters more than anything else – because each win is a win for our children and for our future.

It isn't enough to say he will be missed.


  1. You've said it beautifully here Shelley. There's only one thing missing...our beloved Chef.

  2. thank you for writing this beautiful tribute.