If you’ve been in to Treeline in the last month, you’ve probably noticed a lot of new faces behind the bar.
We’ve got A LOT of new baristas, and instead of viewing this as an impediment, I’m excited. They are all enthusiastic and doing amazing so far, and in times when a lot of businesses are having trouble staffing their stores, it makes me happy that we’ve created an environment where people want to work and learn the craft.
The nature of the coffee game is that most people aren’t lifers, so an eventual changing of the guard is inevitable. As a consequence of this, I’ve been doing a lot of training. I wear many hats at Treeline, and one of them says ‘Head Trainer’ on it. These are metaphorical hats, mind you. I’m not a hat guy, they mess up your hair. Spending the last month or so working on getting all of our new people up to speed with the help of my amazing colleagues has made me ponder the dynamic between Teacher and Student, Master and Apprentice, or Grizzled Veteran and Greenhorn.
If you know me this will come as no surprise, but I was never a good student. I absolutely hated school. I hated all the rules, all the sitting, all the structure. I was more concerned with making my classmates laugh than I was with getting an education. Shocking, right? I’ll allow you a moment to pick your jaw up from the floor. From elementary school all the way through High School, I treated the classroom like it was open mic night and there was a talent scout in the audience. Most teachers wrote me off as a disruptive nuisance, and in retrospect, I can’t blame them. They were getting underpaid to corral a hyperactive group of 40 kids in the Oakland public school system, the last thing they needed was a 10-year wise-cracking Dan making their lives even harder. Despite all this, I had a couple of teachers who saw potential in me, despite my annoying proclivities. And to this day, the impact they had on me is still felt. The most memorable was Mr. Stephen Day, who was my 5th-grade teacher. He was young, only 24 years old, and he was the first teacher I ever had who realized that I wasn’t dumb, just disinterested. He saw through all my attention-seeking bullshit, and instead of reprimanding me, he encouraged me to direct my energy towards more productive endeavors. He lit a fire under my ass simply by caring. He noticed I had a talent for writing and would give me college professor-level feedback on pieces I wrote for him. He instilled a love of poetry in me when he gave me his own copy of a collection of poems by Langston Hughes. School ended at 3 in the afternoon and my mom didn’t get off work till 5:30, so usually, I would just roam around causing trouble. But one afternoon Mr. Day invited me to hang out with him while he graded papers, and it soon became a daily thing. We would sit in his classroom after all the other kids had gone home, playing chess, listening to Miles Davis, and talking. At the time I just thought he was a cool guy who wasn’t like all the other teachers I had, but looking back on it I realize the enormity of what he did for me. He wasn’t being paid to sit around with me, he probably had more important things to do. But he made the time, and for that, I will forever be grateful. I still love poetry and play chess to this day, but more importantly, I still think about Mr. Day. To have someone who wasn’t a family member believe in me was huge, even if I didn’t fully realize it back then.
I’M SURE YOU ALL HAVE A TEACHER WHO YOU THINK BACK ON FONDLY, OR AT LEAST I HOPE YOU DO. IF THAT’S THE CASE PLEASE INDULGE ME AND TAKE A COUPLE OF MINUTES TO THINK ABOUT THEM, AND WHAT THEY MEAN TO YOU. I’LL WAIT……
Alright, back to the blog.
As someone with a memory that holds information about, as well as a pasta colander, holds water, the radiance and vividness of my recollections of Mr. Day all these years later tells me something important: There is something sacred in the teacher/student relationship. Something that transcends words.
I’m no Mr. Day, but I’m trying. I’m also not shaping the minds of America’s youths, I’m teaching new baristas how to make coffee. So the stakes are slightly lower. I’ve been training baristas for years, and it used to just be something I did because I had to. I didn’t have any particular love for it or talent. Teaching wasn’t something I found rewarding, because I didn’t think about the responsibility it carries. I mean how many ways are there to tell someone how to do something? Well, as it turns out, a lot. Everyone learns in different ways, and it is the job of the teacher to figure out what those ways are. Otherwise, you might as well be reciting information to a brick wall. I used to do a “one size fits all” scatter-gun style of training, and then I’d be baffled when I wasn’t seeing exemplary results. It’s much easier to blame the student when information doesn’t stick, and we don’t get the outcome we want, but in most cases, I believe the responsibility lies with the teacher. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” is an oft-repeated aphorism that’s somewhat true, but what if you didn’t lead the horse correctly?
So I examined how I was training and found myself lacking. Instead of a “here’s the information, alright, consider yourself trained” approach, I now tailor my training to the specific student. I have a loose outline of what I want to go over, but I change it on the fly to meet the needs of the person I’m training. The majority of people want to excel at what they’re doing, and it’s my job to give them the tools to do so. A big part of that is figuring out how that person learns. It’s a feeling-out process, and a lot of patience is required. Coffee is very important to me, and I try to pass that passion on to those I work with. I don’t expect new baristas to be in coffee forever, or develop an undying love for it, but I do try and impart one thing: Give a shit. That’s kind of the whole Philosophy behind Treeline. We spend hours teaching our people how to make pour-overs, the science behind coffee extraction, how to pull good shots of espresso, developing our palates, how to steam milk and a million other coffee nerd things that I won’t bore you with. But none of those things matter if our underlying motivation isn’t to care. To care about each shot of espresso, each drink, each customer. The same ethos applies to teaching people, if you start by actually giving a damn, you’re already halfway there.
Once I started putting effort into becoming better at my job as a trainer, it immediately became more rewarding. I became emotionally invested. I viewed the people I was training as my responsibility, instead of as just another new person who was going to slow me down. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone’s eyes light up when something you’re showing them finally clicks. And seeing a once nervous and struggling barista, a few months later cranking out drink after drink on the bar during a hectic morning rush without breaking a sweat is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
I FIRMLY BELIEVE THAT IF YOU ARE AN EXPERT AT SOMETHING, YOUR END GOAL SHOULD ALWAYS BE TO HAVE YOUR PUPILS NOT ONLY RISE TO YOUR ABILITY BUT TO SURPASS YOU.
To do this you have to put your ego aside, which can be difficult for even the most humble of us. Ip Man was a Grandmaster of the Chinese martial art Wing Chun. A few so-so movies have been made about him, but before that, he was largely unknown in western culture. Instead of climbing to the top of the mountain and sitting there comfortably alone, he spent his life training students in Wing Chun, many of whom became masters in their own right. You may have heard of one of his students: Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee took what he learned from Grandmaster Ip Man, moved to America, and founded the martial art Jeet Kune Do, which was a hybrid martial arts philosophy drawing from different combat disciplines. He opened a Dojo and actually got in quite a bit of trouble for teaching Chinese martial arts to anyone who wanted to learn, regardless of race or gender. Teaching Westerners was considered very taboo at the time, and he received constant death threats, which he promptly ignored. Now that’s a teacher. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Lee, he’s widely considered to be the most influential martial artist of all time. At 64 years of age, Grandmaster IP man had finally met a student who would go on to one day surpass him, and to me, that’s a very beautiful thing.
Please don’t think I’m comparing myself to Ip Man, or Mr. Day, but I try to live by their examples as best as I can. I am constantly refining and working to improve how I train people.
AS MUCH JOY AS IT BRINGS ME WHEN A CUSTOMER ENJOYS A DRINK I MAKE THEM, IT’S AN EVEN BETTER FEELING WHEN THEY LOVE A DRINK MADE BY SOMEONE I TRAINED.
That’s not to say the credit belongs to me, because it doesn’t, not at all. I could use a cliche analogy about planting a seed in a garden and watching it bloom, but it’s not like that. I’m not a parent, but I assume it’s a similar feeling to having your kid make the Dean’s List. Sure, you helped them along the way, but they are the ones who put in the work and strived for success, and the honor is theirs. I guess I’m at a point in my life where I understand those “My kid made the honor roll” bumper stickers that everyone hates, which is kind of scary.
All of us will be students and teachers at different points in our lives. Sometimes concurrently. Maybe you’re learning how to play guitar, or you’re teaching your kid how to ride a bike. Maybe you’re starting a new job, or maybe you’re learning how to relax after retirement. Almost paradoxically, What makes a good student and a good teacher are exactly the same thing: curiosity. You can’t learn without it, and you certainly can’t teach without it. The best teachers stay curious and are always trying to learn more about their areas of expertise. The best students use their curiosity to delve deeper into what they’re learning. A good student should always question what they’re learning, and a good teacher should always be ready to answer.
Every person you meet knows something that you don’t. Maybe it’s something small, maybe it’s something big. The same goes for you, there is something that you are an expert in, even if you don’t fully realize it. Pablo Picasso once said, “The meaning of life is to find your gift, the purpose of life is to give it away.” So go out there and start learning, and start teaching, and above all, stay curious.