First Person: Jamie Oliver on How 'a Little Extra Care and Attention' Turned a 'Thick Kid' Into One of Today's Most Popular Chefs
I left school with very little on the qualification front — two exam passes and some happy memories — and I spent most of my school life struggling my way through. I was pretty much known as the "thick kid" — as someone who would never understand the academic subjects — and although I enjoyed school, it was clear to me that while the academic kids rose to the top, kids like me were often left to falter.
Every 26 seconds, a kid drops out of — or gets kicked out of — a high school in the United States. The reasons for this are many and varied, but I believe that it's worthwhile to give most of these kids more of a chance to engage with education. For a lot of kids, the structure of school simply doesn't work.
That's not to say that kids don't need rules. Of course they do. But if we're going to keep these young people in school, we need to inspire them and make them want to stay and to learn, and help them to have the confidence and self-belief to be able to make something of themselves.
A few years ago, I made a TV series in the U.K. called "Jamie's Dream School." It was an opportunity to try to inspire and motivate kids who didn't get on well in a traditional school environment. We chose celebrity teachers — not people who were famous for being famous but people at the top of their fields of expertise — to reach out to these young people. The teachers had varying levels of success. The ones who succeeded and managed to get through to the kids tended to be those who played around with the normal structure of a lesson to bring it to life and to reach out to these challenging kids. The teachers who had problems were the ones who tried to lecture in the same way that their own teachers had many years before. In my opinion, teaching has moved on. Kids have moved on. And we all need to recognize that the old ways don't always work anymore.
So, how do you inspire kids who don't care about school? For me, the interesting thing was how certain teachers managed to get through to certain students but not others. Some schools try to treat all students the same, but they shouldn't.
For the academic kids, school is great. For the 50 percent or so of kids who aren't particularly academic, it's a problem. And for those who get thrown out of high school, their lives are forever changed. We need to do more for those kids who start to fail — they need a different approach that develops their people skills, or team building and problem solving, or their ability to build things or make stuff. We need to attach importance to these skills too, in the same way as we do with math and history.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that math and history aren't important. It's just that for some kids, hearing the word "math" switches them off. As any teacher will tell you, if you've got a kid in class who's switched off, the whole class is going to suffer. It is imperative that teachers identify the kids who have shut down and find something they can engage in, something that sparks their interest in learning.
One of the most interesting things about doing "Dream School," both in the U.K. and now in the United States, is how much all the mentors learned from their experience. As I mentioned, I was once the student who was shut down, but luckily I found something that I loved and that inspired me — and that was food and cooking. I was also fortunate enough to be guided by mentors, people who bothered to take the time to show me new skills — who praised me when my work was good and put me right when it wasn't.