Elissa Oliver teaches culinary arts at Riverwood International Charter School. She joined the faculty at Riverwood in 2013, and also has taught classes at Viking Cooking School. In addition to an undergraduate degree in recreation and leisure services from Middle Tennessee State University and a masters in health and wellness education from the University of Mississippi, she earned a culinary certificate from Le Cordon Bleu.
Q: What attracted you to teaching at first?
A: I love the interaction with my students, one on one. I am able to see their accomplishments first-hand. I get to make personal connections and help each student achieve individual goals.
The kitchen is my domain and I can show my personality and creativeness through the food. Teaching high school allows me to have family time, which is very important for balance, having nights and weekends off. I love to cook and enjoyed working at Cherokee Country Club and restaurants, but I wanted to teach to inspire others. I was able to come to Riverwood in 2013 and turn the program around and make it a new hands-on experience for the students.
Q: Has the appeal changed?
A: Of course, when I started, I thought, “I am strictly a culinary teacher. I am their ‘chef,’ ” but then I realized it is so much more than that. Not every student I teach wants to be in the culinary job field, but every student has to eat and needs life skills.
I am teaching these kids life lessons, professionalism and employability skills. We go over cost control and how to manage household budgets, writing resumes, organization and how to properly interview for a job.
The appeal now is to teach them to be successful and get jobs for the future while cooking and learning new things. I get to continue my learning through the teaching experience as no two days are the same.
Q: What keeps you going year after year?
A: Chef/culinary teacher in a high school setting is my dream job! Every day is different, every year with different students is exciting.
I teach ninth to 12th graders, and this year I have around 180 students. This job is not monotonous by any means. We change up the lesson plans, cuisines, food and recipes according to what the students need to learn and what I feel like teaching. The culinary world changes every day and we need to keep up with the changes! Every year there are different challenges and it is my job to overcome them in a positive way while getting the material they need to learn across. I believe in real-world situations, so we cater meals in and outside of the school. We do a lot of hands on in the lab and then also have classroom time for discussion. I hold very high standards and I believe that students gravitate to that. Students love structure.
Q: What do you think makes a great teacher?
A: I think a great teacher is prepared, involved, supportive and concerned for the different needs of students. I believe a great teacher is firm, consistent, fair, and provides opportunities outside the classroom. I keep all my records from a student until they graduate from the school. I want my students to be successful and I walk around the classroom and lab so I am present in all situations. I also want to be a role model for all students and by having the characteristics of a great teacher I can achieve that.
Q: What do you want to see in your students?
A: I want my students to be excited, creative, and passionate, not only about culinary arts, but school and their future. I want students to be motivated, involved, become leaders and hard workers. I want my students not to be afraid to ask questions and trust their instincts. I want my students to make great decisions in and out of school. I want my students to excel in communication and professionalism. I want the students in my classes and those who finished the culinary arts pathway to be successful!
Q: How do you engage your students?
A: I engage my students because I am engaged. I am excited each day when I come in to see what today will bring. Will there be something created that we have never seen or tasted before? Will a student try a food they have never had?
When I show my enthusiasm, it is contagious. My hands-on approach is also a draw to engage students. A student might not be good at paper testing but they can be creative in the kitchen and show their personality through their food and projects. I love my job and I tell the students they need to find something they love to do and get paid for it.
Q: Do you have a project or special program you use year after year?
A: Each year we try to cater the same events: the Fulton County principals’ luncheon and the Sandy Springs Education Force race and VIP Breakfast. This year, we catered the Fulton County superintendent’s Holiday Luncheon and hope to keep that going.
I also am starting this year to give all of my Culinary 2 students the Serv Safe Manager exam so they can walk away with a certificate that will be useful after high school. I use the foundations books from the National Restaurant Association as my teaching tools and students can also get certifications from the NRA if they would like. We also are involved in the Family Career and Community Leaders of America competition. Riverwood Culinary won Silver at the National competition in 2016 in San Diego, California.
Q: What do you hope your students take away from your class?
A: I hope my students take away that anything they set their minds to they can achieve.
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