UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Serving up the best education

I have two college degrees, two professional certificates, and I’ve worked in my field for nearly thirty years. Yet I still believe the best education I ever received were the years I spent in my teens and early twenties working in a restaurant.

The restaurant world is a job experience and an education quite unlike any other. There’s a special fraternity among workers who know the intensity of a dinner rush, the frenzied choreography of cooking on the line, the subtle ballet of taking orders and delivering dishes, the ordered chaos of clearing and resetting tables. And the camaraderie of a restaurant crew tends to create a tight bond, especially because the required hours often infringe upon the social lives of the workers. Still, I wouldn’t exchange the hours I spent peddling pasta for anything. Life on the restaurant floor taught me as much as any class. 

Restaurant jobs are, of course, part of the service industry, and the term server is now synonymous with waiter and waitress. Waiting on people is still the essence of service, which means restaurant work requires an inner calm that can test the patience of anyone. Yet, it can also be quite rewarding. In the classic comedy Arthur, the title character played by Dudley Moore tells his date, “Aren’t waiters wonderful? You ask them for things and they bring them… It’s the same principle as Santa Claus.” There is a unique pleasure in providing customers with a pleasant dining experience, and we learn a lot about life and ourselves when we do it.

Much of what students learn during the course of a K-12 education is actually quite arbitrary, even trivial, and not necessarily applicable to what we call real life. In fact, the answer to the age-old question of students, “When am I ever going to use this?” is likely, “Never.” Education is not a utilitarian practice of job training skills. However, the soft skills that come from attending school are indispensable to living a successful life. Organization, time management, communication, collaboration, and personal responsibility are not generally listed in any syllabus or curriculum guide. Yet they are as integral to education as books, and those skills are the essence of the service industry as well.

Many educators, researchers, and employers agree that the EQ is more important than the IQ in predicting success. That term EQ refers to the “emotional quotient,” as opposed to the standard but somewhat ambiguous IQ as a measure of intelligence. There are many highly intelligent people who never quite achieve the success commensurate with their test scores. Other highly successful people who lack academic credentials often achieve because of qualities developed in the workplace rather than the classroom. My Dad was fond of saying, “there are many people who are far smarter than I am, but you won’t find anyone who works harder.” The spirit of hard work has a special meaning for people who can calmly weather a Saturday night dinner rush. Business writer Daniel Pink has written extensively about the value of the non-academic skills necessary to success. Whether it’s The Power of Regret or the importance of Drive, the soft skills of service work can be uniquely relevant to success.

Over many years in education across numerous school systems, I always notice and appreciate what I like to call the “wink-and-a-smile kids.” They might not be the best students from a purely academic standpoint. However, they are the kids who improve a class simply by being there. These are the people I would want on my team, regardless of the task and often in exclusion of any academic qualification like test scores, GPA, or even a diploma. These are the people who could sell me a car or a steak dinner just based on character and hard work.

Working a restaurant floor truly can be the best education. I’d even go as far as saying everyone should work in a restaurant at some point, if for no other reason than to develop a sense of respect for the jobs and empathy for the people who do them. Restaurants are so pervasive in our experience that it’s hard not to believe we could even paraphrase the classic essay from Robert Fulghum about kindergarten and instead say, “All I really need to know about how to live I learned while working in a restaurant.”

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com