What can schools learn from fish & chip shops?

Written by: Armando Di-Finizio | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Growing up working in a fish and chip shop taught Armando Di-Finizio nearly all he needed to know about how to run a successful and compassionate school…


When I look back on my 33-year teaching and leadership career, I think I could attribute much of what I have achieved to my “initial training/apprenticeship” in a fish and chip shop (I know what you’re thinking – but stay with me).

My mother was the daughter of two first-generation Italian migrants who opened an ice cream shop in Scotland and then moved into fish and chips. My father was a first-generation Italian migrant. After marrying they both took over the fish and chip shop and from that point on, my destiny to one day lead (some might say successfully) three schools in challenging areas was sealed.

I am pretty sure my background, being the only “foreign” family in the town (which in the 1960s came with more put-downs than I care to remember) and working in a fish and chip shop resulted in a lack of self-confidence (which to some extent has stayed with me – I’ve always suffered from imposter syndrome).

That was the downside. However, there were many more advantages which, looking back now, led to me having a successful career that I am proud of. This is my chance to put the fish and chip trade on a pedestal and explain why a work experience placement in a chip shop should be part of every teacher training qualification!


Ethics and pride

From a very early age, I was peeling and chipping potatoes, packing the cigarette and fizzy drink shelves, and cleaning pans. From the age of 15, I was left to run the shop during holidays and every weekend (on a Saturday from 10am until 2am).

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t in there every minute of my youth (although it felt like it), but little by little, I was being drip-fed the key components to becoming a teacher and headteacher.

It helped me develop a strong work ethic which is without doubt one of the most important characteristics of a good and successful teacher.

And for both teaching and chip shops, the working hours on the surface look short, however if you are going to take professional pride in the quality of your chips and the batter on your fish, there are hours of preparation before each new day begins. Likewise, lessons need planning, stock needs to be ordered and resources made.

On the subject of pride, my dad would insist on all his staff being dressed in whites – he used to tell me that it looked more professional, and customers would trust the shop and its products if we looked the part. I tried to resist (I didn’t want my friends seeing me dressed in this way, just as punk fashion was taking hold).

The message finally hit home a few years into my career when a senior member of staff stopped me one day and said, “just wear a shirt and tie Armando and people will respect you more”. As a headteacher I always expect staff to have professional pride while in school.


Building relationships

At the end of the day the chip shop would have to be cleaned thoroughly, ready for the next day. And when the shop opened each day, every customer that walked in would be welcomed with a smile.

This was the start of a good relationship forming between the customer and the server. Just as in a chip shop, where it doesn’t take long for customers to spot an owner who doesn’t really care, in the classroom or school it is the same.

A student will soon spot the teachers or school leaders who don’t care as much if they are not modelling the behaviours they want to see in their pupils. Poor modelling soon results in shoddy school-work, poor behaviour and ultimately less pupils attending, as pupils unconsciously feel their teacher or school doesn’t really care.

And my goodness, did I have all of this driven into me. The shop would close around 11:30pm and then the cleaning would begin. Every bit of grease and batter scrap had to be wiped away before we could go home. If someone knocked on the door looking for something to eat, just as we were rubbing the last bit of polish onto the pans, to my horror my dad would invariably open the door for them.

Sometimes he'd switch the pans back on and cook something. Okay it may not have been out of compassion (there was money involved), but it taught me the value of staying later at school to support a student either with their work or if they needed children’s services support. It was time invested.

Learning to understand the moods of customers was also essential and through doing this I learned to control my own moods. Some days (most days), I just didn’t want to be there and every so often I’d be nudged in the side by my dad, telling me to smile and look as if I wanted to be there serving the customers.

He was right of course; we wanted our customers to feel we were there to serve them. We all have our down days, but pupils, parents or staff (if you’re managing them), don’t need to know this. Although I do admit there have still been times when on a wet windy day in November a student would stop me and say: “Sir, why are you walking around with a frown on your face?”


Patience

I was called quite a few choice things during my chip shop years, usually between the hours of 11pm and 1am. Developing patience became a necessity. It was either that or follow in my dad’s footsteps and leap over the counter brandishing a red hot, wire shovel, straight from the pan.

I wasn’t really the fighting type and so developing the ability to give quick, defusing answers with a bit of humour enabled me to successfully deal with potentially abusive pupils in the classroom (without the sarcasm, I should add).

At times, of course, customers had to be told when they were crossing a line and the ultimate sanction was a call to the police or a ban from the shop.

Banning people wasn’t really a good solution and would only lead to those same people hurling abuse outside every time they walked past. As a headteacher in my first post, I quickly learned that fixed term exclusions worked in a similar way. They did not really solve the problem.

I discovered alternatives to exclusions and from around six weeks into the post until three headships later I think I have possibly fix-term excluded only two young people, and even then, it was only to help speed up a care process.


Quality

Maintaining standards and ensuring a quality product are probably the most important things that chip shops and schools must focus on. Everything else is connected to this. When I was very young, I was told to stand outside the other chip shops in the town for a few hours at a time and count the customers. Not a pleasant experience on a cold winter evening in Scotland. Either my dad was giving me additional arithmetic homework, or he was obsessed with the rivals. Sadly, I think it was the latter. This is one thing I learned not to mimic.

Schools to some extent will be rivals when they are in a location competing for limited numbers of pupils. But just as successful schools do, my dad would have been far better off focusing on the quality of his own products and looking for ways to constantly improve them. Perhaps he could have sent me to successful chip shops further away to buy their products and learn from the way they were produced. He could have swapped and shared ideas with other shops, even local rivals. It’s far better to keep on good terms with local rivals. Who knows when you might have to ask a favour and borrow some fish when yours has run out?

I’ve just had a book published called A Head Full of Ethos: A holistic guide to developing and sustaining a positive school culture. In it I describe four qualities that create a positive and productive school ethos which, to some extent, can also be applied to the chip shop:

  • Vision: My dad certainly knew what he wanted to achieve and never stopped looking for ways to achieve this.
  • Leadership: He modelled the practices he wanted to see in his staff, was consistent and had a clear overview of the business; able to foresee issues ahead.
  • Relationships: Er, he did jump over the counter to fight people a bit too often, but he prioritised building positive relationships with his customers who, on the whole, liked him and came back for more.
  • Belonging: His staff were always a tight unit and retention was good. And his customers? I believe the shop was an integral part of the community, as all schools should aim to be.


Conclusion

Even although I chose not to follow that career path (I’d be a wealthy man now), the chip shop really did help me to be a better teacher, and ultimately a better school leader. It goes to show just how transferable experiences and skills can be.

Working in the chip shop was exhausting just as teaching is, however, modelling good practices and behaviours, maintaining high standards and showing that you care is time well invested not only for your students but also for yourself. It makes your job that little bit easier and enjoyable.

  • Armando Di-Finizio has taught in seven schools in deprived areas of London, Bristol and Cardiff. He has led three schools from being among the lowest performing in the country to achieving outcomes well above expectations. His new book A Head Full of Ethos: A holistic guide to developing and sustaining a positive school culture (Crown House Publishing, 2022) is out now: www.crownhouse.co.uk/a-head-full-of-ethos


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