Education Should Emulate McDonald’s

Screen Shot 2013-06-21 at 2.02.57 PMIt’s been the best of years, it’s been the worst of years.

I had great students, but this was the year I wanted to quit teaching and go work at McDonald’s again. I felt standardized, burdened with paperwork, and completely beat up by the media and society. It was tough feeling like one of the people who singlehandedly–intentionally–sabotaged American education. Like I personally slowed down the Race to the Top so Finland could  pass me like Usain Bolt.

I love teaching, but the pull to go back to the Golden Arches was great.  I worked at McDonald’s in high school. I was a good employee. I was respectful, I smiled at customers. I told them to have a nice day. Though I don’t eat meat and I didn’t like smelling like grease even after I showered, I learned a lot of things–learning is important to me. Here’s what working in one of the world’s largest franchises taught me:

People like their burger the same way. There’s a reason that the burger is the burger, and a great amount of effort goes into standardizing that so that we can predict the burger’s quality, temp, size, and features. America likes predictability. They don’t like when you throw surprises at them.

Standardizing things isn’t easy for me, but I could see the McPoint. A smile and a burger. Easy enough. I think differently on occasion. McD’s let me be different–sort of. I was the only vegetarian working there. They didn’t discriminate. If you’re going to be an outlier, that’s a rough place to try it. But if you’re creative, even in the midst of standardization, you can survive. During my lunch break, I’d go to the Big Mac toaster in the back, take a bun, flip it inside-out, commandeer a slice or two of cheese, and put the sandwich with the flipped bun into the toaster, and press it down. It’s a piece of equipment that, until now, you never knew existed. I made myself many marvelous manifestations of grilled cheese–with onions, pickles, tomatoes–whatever non-meat items I could find. That was two decades before “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.” I could’ve been a contender.

I learned, though, that while we sometimes crave standardization–it’s easy, and we can guess the results–one size does not fit all, even at the world’s most regulated chain in the world. Although I don’t eat fast food, I marvel at the operation–it’s marketing heaven. You think McDonald’s is standardized, and in many respects, you’re right, but if you look deeper, one of the largest and most successful franchises on the planet adapts constantly. It doesn’t simply stamp out burgers and call it a day. It has regional nuances for customer preferences–a McD’s in the Southwest isn’t the same from one in historical New England, India, or Russia, international menu offerings that reflect cultural food tastes, and when society changes, the largest recognizable food franchise in the world changes, too. They even respond to trends in food followed by sustainability food freaks like me.

They change as a result of customer demand. They now have organic and fair trade offerings. Newman’s Own! That’s a big deal. They listened to food freaks like me. Education can listen to all the parties, too.  Even though we have to measure, assess, and figure out the best way to improve education nationally, we might emulate the World’s Most Successful Franchise in a couple of ways:

1. Pivot. It’s an overused word in the tech sector, but underused in education. I think it’s time we adopt some business vocabulary and behavior. We don’t have to be cold, hard, uberefficiencymongers, but we can consider honest feedback from all stakeholders–parents, students, businesses, higher education, educators, and educational leaders.  That’s the hybrid group that should revolutionize education. Together we can identify areas of opportunity, and create the freedom to change direction when necessary. Communication and innovation are foundations for success. 

2. Customize. Really take a look at the clientele. For me, it’s my students and their families. I often ask “What do you think?” My end of the year survey gave me areas where I exceeded student expectations and suggestions for next year that I will incorporate and write about so they can see their feedback in action.  A good professional should be able to anticipate needs or simply ask “How can I help you today?”

3. Listen and Be Flexible. Sometimes I have to say the following, “What would you like me to do for you given that we have these goals?” It’s a powerful statement. It gives over the control of the class to the student. Not a lot of people are comfortable giving over control. When I do that, more often than not, the students grade themselves more critically, pick and design activities that were more challenging than any I’d have designed, and go way above and beyond my expectations. All I had to do is listen and be flexible. Flexibility is the key. The greatest innovations happen in flexible environments where creative people are not afraid to fail. We’re not there yet. But we could be if we study the greatest corporate and educational successes out there and steal the ideas that make them great. I’ll steal like an art thief to create an ed utopia. 

I bet I’ll field a couple critical questions in comparing public education to McDonald’s–especially given my status as a vegetarian food freak, but I can’t help the analogy. America loves burgers.

I want America to love public education, too.



Food Extremists Who Are Worse Than Me

This is me. Entirely. I never made out with anyone in the produce aisle, but I feel strongly about food. I want to grow and raise what I eat. I want to eat healthy, to avoid packages. I do lots of things that are considered weird. I bake bread–it goes on the counter to rise at night so it’s ready to make in the morning. I make two types of yogurt–Greek yogurt, and filmjolk, both of which can easily be made into cheese, which I then mix with herbs from my own garden and spread on home-made bruschetta. If I could be perfect, in my own mind, I’d produce or trade for the bulk of my food. I have the land to do that now, and it’s going to get ugly–things planted everywhere–a landscaper’s nightmare, but my idea of heaven. My husband has advised me to “Stay the #$%%^ away from the front yard.” So far I have.

“People don’t like militants,” said my new friend with whom I was discussing food. Am I that bad? I don’t eat meat, I don’t like packaging, I try to avoid processed sugar, erring on the side of local honey and local maple syrup. I denounce pre-cut fruits in bags in the store and I think that the person who invented the Lunchable, is a marketing genius but the devil incarnate.

I never eat fast food–I told my son Chuck E. Cheese was the evil mouse. I haven’t taken him yet. There are much better foods to eat. Like the ones I grow myself.

I just ate my first salad from the garden. I made my own mayo for the dressing from eggs I got down the road–kidnapped right from the chicken at my request, the farmer put them  in the carton I brought from home–never even saw a fridge before they were converted into culinary greatness.

Maybe my friend is right. Perhaps I am a bit extreme. But not militant. I don’t spray-paint people’s leather shoes or threaten their eternal salvation if they eat shellfish or drink beer. I’ll even cook you a steak if you’re a carnivore guest, as long as it’s grass-fed beef.

I just think we’ve lost touch with our food and I think it’s time to find it. But I’m feeling a bit paranoid–am I really all that extreme? It’s time to engage in the great American past time of looking at other people to make myself feel better.  After all, I’m just a vegetarian–there are plenty of extremists out there worse than me.

Many  cultures don’t understand vegetarians. When I was in Russia, people would offer me meat. I’d politely decline. They’d say “Oh, just have one.” I said, “I’m a vegetarian, like Tolstoy.” Tolstoy was also a political extremist. That never helped, but it got me out of the beef stroganoff even if I had to starve that night.

Many of my students are Hispanic. Vegetarians are even less common in that space. More than one student or parent has, out of great concern, tried to send me to the doctors. “Vegetarian? You need to see someone about that.”

But am I really all that weird? I researched other diets. There are people out there who are far more particular than me. There are some really extreme foodies out there.

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 6.18.03 AMI feed paleos all the time. Their food lists are like mine, if you cross off the meat. A list of restrictions that makes an Iron Chef competition look easy. Then there are celiacs, raw foodists, vegans, and locavores, each with their own lists of prohibitions, rules, and food prep nightmares. Muslims and Jews are easy–even though I technically need a second kitchen and a rabbi to convert me to really cook properly for my Jewish friends, there’s a tacit agreement that vegetarians are understanding enough not to use bacon grease in the home-grown French cut beans, and we’re good with that. It’s the culinary secret handshake. If only solving peace in the Middle East were so easy.

So, I do my best to eat my raw carrots for breakfast unobtrusively, while I greet my next-door colleague who’s busy avoiding wheat, apples, and lactose. We drink home-juiced liquids out of mason jars and shot glasses, and the leaves in my desk aren’t inappropriate for a school setting, they’re just a blend of black and fruit teas, some of which I grew and dried myself.

Am I that far outside the mainstream? Maybe so. We planned a work outing. “You two will not be bringing the food.”

“Your loss.” I thought, as I downed another shot of my friend’s juice–two beets, a banana, pear, and just one sprig of kale–and ate my home-made sauerkraut from a mason jar. It was pretty good. And it was all mine.

[Image:–today this is a link because there are some awesome recipes here!!]