The summer after I graduated from high school I worked as a dishwasher at a restaurant. It was my first real part-time job and I liked it okay. I loved the money I made and the feeling of being a grown-up and the work itself wasn't so bad, though I really disliked cleaning the oven. The restaurant was known for its roast beef sandwiches and there were these two big industrial ovens we used to cook the roasts and they had to be cleaned every day. By hand. By me.
The oven-cleaning routine basically involved making sure one oven was cooled off enough to clean, getting a small bucket of heavy-duty cleaning solution, and getting down on your hands and knees and scrubbing away with a steel-wool-like cleaning pad. The whole process probably took about 20 minutes per oven, and as I look back on it now I have trouble imagining why I hated it so much, but I did. I had other things that I did as part of my job: washing dishes of course, food prep, emptying garbage, mopping up after closing, etc., but all of those duties weren't so bad. It was cleaning the oven that I really despised.
Of course, I did clean the ovens, and I cleaned them every day. I don't even recall complaining about it that much, since I understood it was a part of the job and I understood why it had to be done every day; those things got used a lot and they got nasty pretty quick if they weren't cleaned. Plus, all the other people who worked there had their work to do and they weren't complaining about it, so I would have been embarrassed to be the only one there whining about how much I hated cleaning the ovens. So while I may have made an occasional comment about how distasteful I found that particular task, I basically sucked it up and got it done.
One thing that never happened, though, in all the time I worked there, was my manager never once tried to make the job of cleaning the oven more fun. He never once asked me if there was something he could do to make the task less onerous, or more engaging, or maybe even do away with it altogether. In fact, he didn't seem to particularly care how I felt about cleaning the oven as long as I got it done, and he and I both understood that if I didn't do a good job cleaning the oven then I'd probably get fired and they'd find someone else to do it.
I don't think it ever would have occurred to me to expect my manager to do something to make cleaning the oven more enjoyable. And yet in the world of schooling, that seems to be the almost universal expectation when students are presented with a task that they find less than enjoyable. The teacher is expected to find some way to make the task more "relevant" or "engaging," or find some way to "motivate" the reluctant student.
I don't want to give the impression that I'm against relevant, engaging tasks in the classroom, or that I think we as teachers should give no thought to ways to motivate our students. I do this all the time, and most of the teachers I work with do as well. We don't want our students thinking the subjects we teach are boring, useless, or have no relation to the real world, and we understand that working with young people often means finding ways of encouraging them to engage in tasks that might be a little out of their comfort zone.
But the fact is that not everything a student does in their classes is going to be as fun as going to a party or watching their favorite TV show, and I think we do a disservice to students (and teachers) when we send the message that if a task is not fun, there must be something wrong with it. Or worse, if it's not fun, you should wait for the teacher to make it fun. Or even worse, if it's not fun you don't need to do it.
I never did learn to enjoy cleaning the oven. What I did learn, however, was that even though I didn't like doing it, I did like the feeling of having completed this important, though mildly distasteful, task. And I also learned some other things: self-discipline, how to work hard without complaining, and that not everything in my life is going to be fun. Those are lessons I'd like my students to learn as well.
Image by LuMag00 via Flickr