Brenda Hitchins challenges her Washougal High School culinary students to succeed, but also to not fear failure. If they accidentally crack an egg and break a yoke, for example, she’ll remind them that eggs are cheap and easily accessible, and encourage them to try again.
That mindset was challenged during the 2020-21 school year, which was severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and increased the importance of the life skills that Hitchins strives to teach through cooking.
“Resilience is probably the biggest thing that we talked about this year,” the Washougal High Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher said. “I always say, ‘You have to bend like a tree. When the wind blows, you have to bend.’ I mean, that’s life. You can’t always be the victim. You have to keep moving, you have to keep practicing, you have to keep trying and you have to keep learning.”
Hitchins’ own resilient efforts were recently rewarded by the Vancouver-based Educational Service District (ESD) 112, which named her as its 2021 Regional Teacher of the Year. She will compete with eight other candidates for the 2022 Washington State Teacher of the Year award, which will be given out later this year by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
“There’s just so many good teachers out there, and to this day, I feel like, ‘(They picked) me?'” Hitchins said. “You read about all these past teachers (of the year) and you’re just like, ‘Whoa.’ When I found out that I won, I was just amazed.”
Margaret Rice, the district’s director of CTE and culinary services, wrote in a letter of recommendation that she “cannot think of a more deserving and excellent candidate for teacher of the year than chef Hitchins.”
“I would’ve been disappointed if she hadn’t been picked,” Rice recently told the Post-Record. “She’s an amazingly dedicated educator, and she’s innovative. She thinks outside the box. She’s done a great job of teaching (life skills) through her subject matter in a lot of different ways. Her colleagues can rely on her, and the students just love her. She’s just an amazing person, solid to the core.”
Hitchings transferred her hands-on lessons to the virtual environment by demonstrating step-by-step cooking instructions via Zoom and creating “kits,” filled with recipes, ingredients and equipment that students needed to make dishes, which they would photograph and submit for assessment.
“I felt like a first-year teacher,” she said. “I had to relearn and re-teach myself so many things. I had to watch so many videos. I had to search for the stuff that I wanted to (teach). It was the hardest year of my teaching career because I felt that I didn’t know anything. I had many sleepless nights worrying about, ‘I don’t know if this lesson is going to work.’ When I got that first lab sheet back — an apple pie — I looked at it and I started crying. I was like, ‘OK, this works.'”
Most of her other ideas worked as well. For example, she arranged for students to collaborate with middle school design and modeling pupils to create three-dimensional cookie cutters, which were then used to make holiday-themed confections.
She was also instrumental in the creation of Washougal High’s new project-based learning experience, a student-led food truck business that will launch during the 2021-22 school year.
And when her students returned to the classroom, she organized a year-ending “food fair” that featured a variety of handmade food items, which were purchased and eagerly consumed by many parents and other community members in the school’s courtyard.
“Her creativity and innovation really came out through,” Rice said. “She just went with the flow and did what she could and changed and pivoted. I know she’s exhausted, but she handled it like a pro. She was constantly thinking about (new ideas) and always willing to adjust and change when we needed to better her students’ experience and to get what she needed in order for them to learn as much as they possibly could within the constraints or confinement of this year, which was definitely challenging on so many levels.”
Hitchins collaborates with Clark College’s “Career Launch” program, which provides students with opportunities for classroom learning and paid work experience; serves as an advisor for SkillsUSA, a Virginia-based career and technical student organization; and is a member of Washougal High’s culture and climate team.
“She fosters pride and a good work ethic in her students, encouraging them to take pride in their accomplishments and creations,” Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton said in a news release. “Thanks to her tutelage, students with an interest in culinary careers can step confidently out into the job market with the skills needed to move forward in life.”
Hitchins worked as a pastry chef at many Las Vegas casinos, including Caesar’s Palace, Rio and Excalibur, for 30 years before transitioning to education through a “work to teach” program. She spent six years teaching at a Las Vegas-based career and technical academy before joining Washougal High’s staff in 2017.
“(Earning this award) means that I need to step up my game more,” she said. “In the (food) industry, we were just as good as our last event. We got up the next day and started all over. I’m in that habit or mode of, ‘OK, that was great. Now we have to replicate it or do better.’ That’s what I always do and continue to do — try to do better and make our community better.”