What Parents, School Boards, and Teachers Can Learn from The Great British Bake Off

Like an aimless teenager wandering the halls, I am often late, not to important things– like class– but to pop culture. For instance, I just started watching Brooklyn 99 and started a TikTok  this past spring. 

So, as you might expect, The Great British Baking Bake Off was one such pop culture phenomenon that alluded me, until now. I’ll be honest: I have no other way to tell you what Series I have seen without referencing Big Streaming Service’s “Collections”. I have completed the most updated episodes of the recent “Collection” and “Collections” 1 and 2, which I can only assume is not Season, I mean Series, 1 and 2 because the contestants seem to already understand the show’s format and its hosts and judges.

As a teacher, I found myself watching this show and being simultaneously entertained and recognizing that the show has value in what we can learn from it about teaching and learning.

So, if you are a teacher, a parent, or a school board member or know someone who is or was a teacher, parent, or school board member, on your marks, get set, READ!

What parents and school boards can learn:

Be a lifelong learner

If you wouldn’t call yourself a student of something, you’re doing it wrong. We should all be students of something our whole lives. It’s called lifelong learning. On The Great British Baking Show, I’ve seen bakers who were seventeen to septuagenarians. I’ve seen students, artists, graphic designers, pantomime producer- yes, you read that right-, and a whole host of other professions, and they all have one thing in common: they are constantly learning. OK, they have at least three things in common, and the other two are being residents of the United Kingdom and baking, but that’s in the title of the show.

One of my biggest concerns about our society is the message our adults are sending to our children about learning. How do we learn? Reading, practicing, trial and error, listening to experts, etc. Our culture is dominated by people who put on airs that they know and are supremely confident in everything, people who are canceled immediately after making a mistake, being afraid to show our flaws (hello, social media), ignoring experts in favor of some questionable source that fits our own perspectives, and, well, when was the last time a child saw you reading a book? Be a better example to our children by being a constant, public learner.

Pardon the pun, but…

Teachers knead more dough.

I couldn’t resist, but seriously, how is it that teachers are still so undercompensated? How can we focus on guiding the next generations’ stars if we are also worried about how we’re going to afford our son’s tens of thousands of dollars of medical bills after insurance due to his cancer diagnosis after we just moved across the country to take the only job we were offered and ran out of sick days? Like that’s going to happen, right?

It did.

I know the guy really well, and my son is now a cancer survivor with a host of long-term effects that he just got out of the hospital again for recently. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I was able to finally get closer to home because we did not have to worry about him being rejected for pre-existing conditions. Also, most of my teaching career I have walked to work because I couldn’t afford two working cars for our family. But, yeah, I can totally keep my mind on being a great teacher and not worry about any of that or how I am going to ever pay back my student loans.

Imagine if Paul and the others on The Great British Bake Off got paid in basically what the bakers made, and you have an idea of how hard the struggle is for teachers to put their personal finances in order. If you have never had the experience of standing in front of children trying to teach them important skills and knowledge while you are also worried about how you are going to afford the furnace repair needed at your house that is currently uninhabitably cold, then you have never experienced the lack of resources so many teachers deal with every day. If you still think teachers get paid enough, please reread the “lifelong learner” section.

Dress for the job you have because that is the job you have

The idea that teachers, or anyone else really, needs to dress a certain way, have certain color hair, be free of visible piercings or tattoos, conform to societal gender norms, etc. in order to be a professional is one of the most archaic lies we continue to propagate. Paul Hollywood wears jeans. Enough said.

What teachers can learn:

Don’t miss out on Cloak and Dagger, Luke Cage, etc. because you’re too busy binge-watching the same shows for the zillionth time!

Perhaps the most unintuitive thing to do in writing this is to not talk about The Great British Bake Off at all, but here we are. We have all heard great things about The Office, Parks and Recreation, and even Tiger King (can you believe it is still the same calendar year that we were all mesmerized by this exploding train wreck of a life captured in docuseries?). What happens when we only really pay attention to the shows, read students, that everyone else already thinks are great is that we miss the other great shows, again students, that no one manages to hear great things about. 

After binge-watching all of the “must-see” TV streaming services had to offer, I found myself with nothing left to watch– you know the kind of nothing where there are thousands of other things to watch, but you don’t know how to find what you’ll like, so you just scroll hopelessly. I stumbled upon Luke Cage just sitting in “My List”, and I saw an advertisement for Cloak and Dagger. I watched one, then the other, and I was captivated. Here I am thinking about these two shows and how much I loved experiencing them, but what if I had never heard anything about either of them? If you’re a teacher, you should be recognizing this connection by now. Have you ever had that student whom (See? I’m obviously a teacher because I just used whom correctly) you thoroughly enjoyed knowing but no other teacher you talked to seemed to share your enthusiasm? 

If not, you are exactly the kind of teacher who needs to see Cloak and Dagger and Luke Cage, and just for good measure, I’m going to need you to watch Stand and Deliver, Mr. Iglesias, and Mr. Holland’s Opus too. In the event you are already the hipster version of a teacher and have had a deep appreciation of the under-the-radar greatness of students, don’t horde their secret greatness to yourself. Be the positive review for these students that gets them more seasons instead of being canceled.

Find your own version of the Paul Hollywood handshake

My only real experience with British people on reality shows has been with Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay, more on this later. Paul Hollywood is very much unlike these other men. Paul will offer criticism that is hard to take, but he also uses his words to tell people when they have done something well. However, when he really wants them to know they have done something special, he shakes their hand. It’s simple but effective. If he shook everyone’s hand every time, it would be meaningless. We used to have this in education; it was called an A. Now the A has become the C, and we no longer have an effective way to tell students they have done something remarkable. So, what should we do? We should remark about their excellence. Unfortunately, the words we might want to use to remark are overused and have lost their true meaning. When we earnestly mean to celebrate students with these now platitudes, it can actually do harm because students view the empty praise as ingenuine. I don’t know what your handshake will be, but you need to have one.

Feedback should be specific

I think my favorite event in the show is the first event. I forget what it’s called, but it’s the one before the technical challenge. It’s my favorite because the bakers all get assessed on their product, techniques, choices, compliance, etc., and they are told what went well and what didn’t, but they don’t get ranked, eliminated, etc. 

First off, that demands emphasis: the bakers are told what they have done well. If we only tell students what went wrong, or worse, we only tell the star students when they have done well, why would they ever want to keep baking? 

I was in the Marine Corps for 8 years, and I know that I did not run well, present a chiseled frame well, press my uniforms well, shine my boots well, or really do Marine well; except, I had one Captain who saw me as a person who was a hard worker, took care of his family above all else, could have good ideas, wanted to serve his country in combat, was disappointed that he never got to do so, cared deeply about others and justice, and was a great teacher. That’s right, I started teaching in the Marine Corps, and I would not be a teacher today if not for her acknowledgement that I had a gift for the vocation.

(Photo of me at the office where I worked with an encouraging Sergeant in Hawaii)

Also, I had a Sergeant who recognized that I was doing the best I could with the struggles I had, that I genuinely wanted to do better even when I wasn’t doing well, who wanted to see me get promoted and succeed, who recognized that leaving the Marine Corps at 21 with a wife and child without a degree was not the best option for me, who was kind, and who gave me leadership opportunities. Without him, I would not have reenlisted, and I never would have served for the aforementioned Captain. 

(My first day ever as a teacher. I’m the guy on the left in the back row weirdly looking at Lieutenant looking at me.)

Sure, people can do plenty of things wrong, and some of those things need to be pointed out but so do the things they do well. We don’t have to grade students’ work in order for them to know how well they did. In fact, I dare say that grading might actually make us worse at letting students know how well they did. I can recall just this past week giving points in the grade book for completed assignments and typing nothing on the students’ work. We call it completion, homework check, etc. I call it a regret and a mistake I am still making. 

After this first challenge on the show, the bakers reveal in their interview what their overall interpretation was of their performance without the judges having ever explicitly said so. What the judges do explicitly say is how well or poorly the dough was proofed, how the sponge was baked for the right amount of time or not, whether or not the baker used salt instead of sugar, how well or poorly timed the application of the icing was, etc. These bakers know at the end exactly which of their applied skills was performed well and which ones need improvement.

You are part entertainer, part educator

I am the first to admit that I cannot compete with all of the choices available for entertainment. Especially in the era of remote learning, I know fully that I cannot create content that rivals that of my students’ favorite YouTuber, TikToker, or any other kind of brand name turned in to an -er.

However, not everyone likes bread week, or pastry week, or cake week, etc., and there would be fewer serieses (OK, now that has gotten ridiculous) of this show if it were not equal parts educational –after all, it is on PBS in the States– and entertaining. What I love about The Great British Bake Off (from here out referred to as GBBO because I am tired of typing its full name, and also, I am not sure if the show is called The Great British Bake Off or The Great British Baking Show, but this is the Twitter abbreviation referring to the show) is that the judges can be kind or even funny; the hosts are usually funny: Noel and Matt are my favorites. Beyond funny, they are kind, collected, and all sorts of other entertaining things that typically we don’t get in American reality shows. Still, they aren’t all fun and games and sunshine. They’re serious when they need to be too. 

The cake is dry, you shouldn’t have thrown your ice cream cake in the garbage and stormed out of the tent, we have to say goodbye to one of our bakers, etc. As teachers, we have to be positive and serious and fun. Not everyone likes your course content or maybe even you, but you should work every day to make sure that those kids get from you seriousness when needed, positivity, and a healthy dose of humor. If Paul Hollywood can laugh at himself, you can too. Like a good Tiramisu, you need all the right ingredients in the right order and to be sure that no one ingredient overpowers another all in the same dish.

Everyone can improve

Even the star bakers get feedback about what they could do better. Paul and Mary (or Paul and Prue) have a job to do: as objectively as possible, they are to give feedback to the bakers and decide who is the best among them. As teachers, our job is to tell students what they are doing right and what needs to be improved. While we are on the subject, averages are probably the worst form of determining grades. The best? Not grading at all. I admit that would not make for an effective reality show, but our classrooms are meant to be reality shows are they?

In “Collection 1” the man who received star baker the most did not win in the end, though he had averaged more “A’s” than the winner and had done pretty well most weeks. If you begin to teach a child addition, and s/he does not do well at addition until the last week of school, what is the child’s current status when it comes to the student’s ability to add? You gave the student 100 addition problems in varying complexities, and s/he can correctly respond to all of them. Sounds like that skill is mastered excellently. That student failed, got Ds, got Cs along the way. What’s the final grade when it comes to addition? More challengingly for teachers is when a student has done really well. How can that student get better? You need to have an answer because the truth is that the student can get better. What’s the difference between your A students and B students? How do B students achieve A status? How do A students get better?

Sometimes, give vague instructions

Now that the whole “But what about their grades?” part can be eliminated, how can we improve the learning?

Just watch the technical challenge. Bakers are not shown an example, and they must follow directions to a T, but the directions are usually really vague. I can’t remember the episode or the baked good in question, but there was one technical challenge where none of the bakers knew what the item was and could not visualize it as an end product. Instructions for these challenges often include things like: bake until done, make the glaze, fold the dough the proper number of times, etc. As a viewer, it is really fascinating to me to see what these bakers can do with what they already know when faced with this difficult challenge. This is not the event that will make or break these bakers, but it does factor into their overall evaluation. Part of why it is fair is that the students are given a pretty clear rubric ahead of time. The judges will be looking to make sure that your layers are thin and that each ingredient is detectable but does not overpower the others, or something like that.

Do this. Think about what your students should already know how to do, add a pinch of the unknown, watch them rise, apply the right amount of heat and time, and serve fresh to your administrator during your formal evaluation.

Get out of the way!

For the most part, the show is really calming. The most anxiety I ever feel is when the judges, or worse the hosts, interrupt the bakers while they are working intensely or dealing with a difficult challenge. Sometimes, judges hear the bakers’ plans and tell them it won’t work and then walk away. Other times, hosts are dipping their fingers in bowls for a  taste or physically standing in the baker’s space trying to joke with them while the baker is trying to politely shoo them away. I know you would never do this, and there are definitely struggles we do need to jump in and help students with. I also know that there have been classes where I have had to assign more reading out of class because I let “play time” go on too long or times where I shot down research topics as “too hard”. Sometimes, just get out of the way.

Work is done in the tent

Some of you are out here wondering why you sent your kid home to make a dessert from scratch and ended up having a class full of delicious goods with a trash can overflowing with boxes and packaging from the local bakery and grocery store, read cheating. Yes, the bakers can practice some of the techniques and dishes at home, but the work that matters is done in the tent. Paul and Mary aren’t evaluating any of the attempts the bakers made at home. 


Because it was freaking practice! 

Baseball players don’t get home runs from batting practice added to their stats, quarterbacks in practice aren’t afraid their in-practice interceptions are going to affect their quarterback rating, and your last job interview did not watch tape about you practicing in the mirror or in your car. Why on earth would you be evaluating the students’ practice as part of their grade? Work that matters, read assessed, is done in the tent. Also, Paul and Mary/Prue do not walk into the tent and tell the bakers how to make cake for an hour and then tell them to go home and make one.

Put this into the context of school for a moment. Our bakers at our show go to seven different tents every day for about 45 minutes each. Pretend for a moment that their lives are all about baking and our show and that they have no other needs or interests outside of those two. We are asking our bakers to go home every night and bake a cake, a loaf, some brownies, a Japanese inspired mixed-method baked good, cinnamon rolls, pasties, and a  Kouign Amann. That all sounds incredibly delicious, and of course, I would love to be treated to all that work tomorrow in the tent, but it is also absolutely, unquestionably disrespectful to ask all of that of another human being. Then you factor in grading it on how well it was done or how timely it was done, and now you are talking about new levels of dehumanization! Have I mentioned that work that matters needs to be done in the tent?

Let them make show-stoppers

Your students are full of talents, some that they have developed over time and others they are still developing. Give them a chance to showcase those talents. When it comes to the skills and knowledge of your course content, find ways to let them showcase that knowledge and those skills in a way that is personalized and includes choice. Also, find ways to let them showcase non-course-content skills and knowledge. If you get to make a go kart for English class (a real example from my school) because you love the idea of making a go kart, you just found English class relevant. 

One of my favorite things I had students do I called Winter Wonderwork. I offered students extra credit, a decision I somewhat regret, if they spend their winter break pursuing something new to them that they had wanted to do but never found the time to do. It was English class, so I evaluated their speaking skills. Ok, I didn’t, but this was my justification. My requirements were simple: it must be something new, you must work on learning it at least an hour per day, you must submit a short video every day that tells me what you did that day and how things are going. That’s it. I remember a student learning to play a Beatles mash-up on guitar and singing. That version of “Yesterday” and “Blackbird” has now replaced the original songs in my mind. I watched students paint, draw, knit hats, mine crypto currency, etc. If that anecdote wasn’t enough to convince you to do something like this, go rewatch Grey’s Anatomy because you’re basic, and this next-level stuff is not for you.

It isn’t always great

Collection 2 is what I am currently watching. I don’t know how many episodes in I am. I don’t remember the bakers or specific challenges, and I have definitely fallen asleep during some episodes. Teacher, not every class, year, school, class, etc. is going to be a hit. You’re going to have some duds. You’re going to work really hard on mixing things up just right but ending up with something Paul spits out. You’re going to try to make ice cream cake when it is 40 degrees Celsius– you look it up; I had to– because someone decided it was a good idea. The point is you are going to have moments of failure. What better way to teach your students how to recover from failure and learn from it than to do it right in front of them?

With the advent of streaming services and cable before that, we have invented the binge-watch, where viewers are constantly thinking about their favorite entertainment options. If you’re a teacher, you probably have a binge that is a little different. You can never really seem to change the channel on your teacher brain. If you’re anything like me and the teachers I know, your life is pretty much consumed by thoughts about how to make lessons or units better, how to use updated materials that are relevant and inclusive, how to establish better grading practices and procedures, etc. It is in this very state that I found myself while doing some of my own binge-watching and found that many of the ideas stored away in the pantry of my mind were ready to be taken out, measured, incorporated, proofed, prepared, and finished.

So, if you’ve ever wanted to be a better baker, I highly recommend The Great British Bake Off. However, if you have ever wanted to better understand great teaching practices, whether you are a teacher or not, I highly recommend The Great British Bake Off.

If I could leave you with only one parting thought by which you would take something from this and do something with, it would be this: read, and let kids see you reading often. If I were given a bonus lesson, it would be to fail often and publicly in order to normalize this reality of learning. Anything else you take with you to go from from this is, well, icing on the cake.

Rob Tesmond is a high school English teacher. As he mentioned in the beginning of this essay, you can find his Tik Tok here. He also started a new podcast and you can listen to the first episode here.

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