Thursday, June 30, 2016

World Tea Expo, Day 1- Re-Evaluating Tea Education

(from right to left: Jo Johnson, James Norwood Pratt, Austin Hodge, Kevin Gascoyne, Darlene Meyers-Perry)
So, here's the thing. I sat down to write a recap of my first full day at the World Tea Expo. I started sketching out my ideas for the Tea Education panel...and realized there was so much to say that it had to exist on its own. In order to spare you a post that would take a few hours to read, I'm going to stick with discussing the panel and everything leading up to it. 

Early in the morning I nervously checked in and received my press badge and met up with a few tea friends, most of whom I had never met in person before, Geoffrey Norman, Naomi Rosen, Rachel Carter, and Nicole Schwartz. It was such a pleasure to meet everyone. I also of course got to see Nicole Martin, which is always a treat, and I met her fabulous 'tea sherpa' fiancee, Jason. Seeing everyone helped dissolve a bit of my 'new girl' anxiety and their friendliness warmed my heart (which was not an easy thing to do in the sub-zero temperatures inside the convention center).

After meeting everyone it was time for my first seminar of the expo, one I was really looking forward to: Re-Evaluating Tea Education. Jo Johnson was the fearless moderator keeping everyone in check, and the panel consisted of several very well respected tea professionals (I consider them tea celebrities): Austin Hodge, Kevin Gascoyne, James Norwood Pratt, and Darlene Meyers-Perry. This star-studded panel had quite a task ahead of them, discussing the future of tea education. This is a hot button topic, as there is no standard for education,and many sub-par programs exist. There are a few well-run rograms but since there is no consistency, tea education in general gets a bad rap. As James Norwood Pratt mentions in the discussion, "information is not knowledge". This is very true. Sitting in a room listening to words doesn't mean you're actually absorbing them. Or retaining anything at all. But of course this statement doesn't mean a student passionate about tea in the right education environment isn't learning anything. He's just saying that generally, you can't assume someone has learned what they need to just by attending classes.

Kevin Gascoyne discussed the importance of knowing the business side of things, which is equally as important as the 'technical' tea side. As students of tea, we need to understand the market,and how to encourage it. This also made sense to me, as you can't be successful in the tea industry (or any industry really) without real-world business experience. There is also huge need for educating businesses on teas they sell, and how to curate them more carefully. There is nothing more frustrating for the consumer than to walk into a store to find hundreds of teas and a staff with a rudimentary knowledge of them.

Kevin said he prefers hiring individuals without a formal tea education so he can teach them from scratch. While I can completely understand why he'd say this, I think it's a bit too general. Of course at this point it's impossible to know what someone was taught, and if the information learned is even accurate. But it seems a bit unfair to completely dismiss someone right off. He did clarify later that he wouldn't completely discount someone that happens to have certification, but he's looking for someone willing to build on what they know and keep an open mind since no one can ever know everything in tea. At one point he said "We're on a journey, not a destination", which I thought was a good way to describe his position.

Jo Johnson explained a bit about her own experience in tea education. She has taken classes because she sought a formal guide on what to study in order to stay focused and not get distracted through  her research. I completely related to this, because whenever I start doing research on teas, I'll look at one thing, get side tracked by an equally interesting tea fact (Ooh! 17th century tea water pumps!) and then end up going off in a different direction. While this is part of the learning process, it is also very time consuming and gets you off topic. Tea education should bring guidance to people like myself that are looking for it, as well as a solid foundation of knowledge.

Everyone agreed the current state of tea education had to change. But we didn't really get into how that could start to happen. There are so many levels to tea education, so where do we start?  You certainly can't get a PhD in tea in the US (and do you really need to?), but why can't there be clear tracks of education, with majors, and areas to specialize in? The most important thing the panelists agreed on is that there needs to be real-world experience in tea education. You can't just read a few books, taste a few teas, and consider yourself educated. It's an ongoing process and interactive experience within the industry is key.  As Darlene Meyers-Perry said, "We will always be learning. You are forever a student of tea."

At this point in the discussion I started to wonder- could the state of tea education be helped with tea internships for students? Working alongside tea professionals, and going on tea-sourcing trips to growing regions could be interesting ways of adding 'internship' experience to an education program. This could be a good starting point for students looking to gain real-world experience in the industry if they don't already have it.

Austin Hodge pointed out that education is a long, ongoing process and it's important for students to realize this. He said "As a tea professional, it'll take you 10 years to realize what you don't know". He wants to see a student that is humble, and continuing to learn since there is never an end to anyone's tea education. Any student that thinks they've learned enough is setting themselves up for failure.

My frustration with the panel discussion is that there just wasn't enough time to even scratch the surface of the issue. This panel shows the importance of continued discussion and action on tea education. We need to find a way for those of us that want formal learning to get the best education possible in and outside of the classroom, and be seen as aspiring tea professionals. We need to recognize educators that are actually running good programs, and help them to be even better. I wished we could hear the panel's ideas on how to change and improve the state of things, but alas we ran out of time. I think this was a good jumping-off point, and I hope the discussion can continue to get deeper into specifics. We need to work together as an industry to get the standards of tea education up to a level where it is truly respected.

...ok, I promise the next post will be about teas, products and tea people I encountered at the expo!


  1. New girl anxiety? You never once seemed like you were anxious. Studious, maybe. But not anxious.

  2. Thanks! I have been looking for a review of this discussion as we have the same problem in Australia. Certified Tea Masters that have never been to a tea farm eventhough tea farms exist here as well.

    1. I'd love to hear more about the tea education options in Australia, Tania. Feel free to send me a message if you have a moment.

  3. Notes on Tea | GeorgiaJuly 1, 2016 at 10:12 PM

    I like the idea of tea internships, Sara! It's always nice to read your perspective. You provide thoughtful observations and examine issues from multiple points of view.

  4. Great review Sara! Talking about Majors and trips to the tea gardens, International Tea Education Institute (ITEI) has been on that path for a long time. For instance, ITEI Tea Mastery Program, 113 hours covers world teas and "terroirs" but it includes a choice of Majors from 8 topics; the major takes 50 hours of studies, essays, research, tea cuppings and more. Tea houses or tea businesses should be rather grateful when one of our certified graduates expresses a desire to work for them; we make tea houses, tea cafes, tea shops internal trainings easier allowing them to be more productive and build the graduate's tea knowledge further adapting it to their internal procedures instead of starting their tea education from scratch.

    Also, ITEI has always offered a choice of tea tours to complete and further advance the students tea knowledge. We even have specialty tea programs where studies are conducted directly in a tea garden environment such as ITEI New World Teas Award- Hawaii.
    Sylvana. P. Levesque, Founder and Managing Director

    1. Thanks Sylvana! ITEI is a great education source, and if anyone has any questions about it, please feel free to contact me!