How I Work: Coffee Shops

In the spirit and namesake of an awesome Fortune Magazine feature story, I’m starting a series of posts that’ll run indefinitely. These are the tools that make my teaching easier, more effective, and more fun.

Okay, okay, so coffee shops are probably the least essential element of this series but the principle they represent rivals graphic design (HIW feature forthcoming) for importance.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Grinder’s class management system, specifically, his principle of “decontamination.” It’s mostly a riff on classical conditioning, but a cannily effective one.

In short, I don’t plan lessons, grade papers, or call parents anywhere near my bed. I spend a few dollars several days a week at Coffee Cat for a comfortable chair, free wireless, and a double white chocolate mocha extra hot light syrup in a to-go cup. (I know … I’m kind of a loser like that.)

The point: it’s far from anywhere I call home. That way, when I leave the coffee shop at nine-ish, lessons planned up, papers graded up, parents phone-called up, I can crash into bed and think happy bed-time thoughts. Like whether John Krasinski is as cool as Jim Halpert. Or which one of us is funnier, me or my girlfriend. Or if I had to go back and relive high school would it be emptier or more satisfying or zzzzzzzz ….

Thoughts like that. But nothing nothing nothing related to my job.

I wouldn’t be so hot on coffee shops and this decontamination idea if it weren’t for a nasty bout of contamination I endured my student-teaching year. Y’know, that year when you taught for three hours a day, studied for five, received more homework than you assigned, and went home to plan lessons for the next day? I’d finish planning at 23h00 and flop backwards from my computer desk to my bed.

Exhausted and all, I’d fall asleep quickly, but it was the worst sleep of my life. I’d have the most vivid waking dreams. I was awake. I was in my bedroom but my first period Algebra class was there also, ready for their lessons. I’d mumble and mumble and look for my whiteboard marker in my covers, sometimes for a half hour, before I thought to flick a light on and assure myself that my class wasn’t really there. I shudder to type all that. It was terrible.

So … coffee shops. Yeah. That’s how I work.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I did something similar today and tend to do so on Sundays. I drive up to a local open space preserve and grade in my car. Sometimes I listen to NPR, sometimes I listen to nothing. I always get more work done that way. Today, I graded 40 papers. The previous 15 papers? You guessed it, graded at a coffee shop earlier in the morning on my way up to the open space preserve.

    I do it so I’m not distracted, so that I’m practically forced to do nothing but grade. But the decontamination idea holds, too. I try to do the same thing during the week, staying in my classroom until 6 or 7 sometimes because when I go home, I want to go home, not just change the background I’m grading in.

  2. Gator, you should:

    a.) create a Myspace


    b.) log in to the secret Myspace that you probably have


    c.) Join my group, “I live at Coffee Cat” (which is recently a lie… it has been too long)