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In their own voices

Last week I gave a reading at Kepler’s (an excellent independent bookstore in Meno Park, California), and one member of the audience asked why I had done a book of interviews rather than a more analytic work.

Indeed, in writing Conversations with Great Teachers, one decision I faced was whether to write a book developing my own analysis about great teaching drawing upon, and quoting liberally from, the interviews with great teachers, or whether to do a book of interviews. I chose the later.

I had always loved and admired the books of Studs Terkel, had always wished he would do one of his “oral history” books of interviews with teachers, and when his career ended, I decided to do one myself. I think of the result similar to the first go-round in Plato’s Symposium in which each speaker, in his own voice, explains his view of love, except that here each in his or her own voice discusses great teaching.  I wanted to put myself in the background and let each of these great teachers speak.

I think you can hear the Eastern European accent and the child-like enthusiasm of Sacha Pavlata talking about teaching circus arts. Vince Dunn talks about years of fighting fires in Manhattan and the Bronx and then teaching others to do it. Emil Jones reflects on mentoring Barack Obama, Martin Landau talks about teaching Jack Nicholson to act, and with genuine feeling, Lynette Wayne says simply, “I don’t think there’s any greater joy than teaching in a first-grade classroom.” There are also moments of thought-provoking surprise. I know that many readers hearing a corporate consultant talk about teaching in Fortune 500 companies are then provoked to thoughtful surprise when he talks about growing up gay and black in Virginia.

My own reflections on all of this are expressed in an introductory essay. Each reader will no doubt form his or her own—and I am still developing mine. Beyond that, I don’t believe I could have done any better than to let these fifty-one amazing teachers speak.

the fifth dimension of great teachers

When I give a bookstore reading or speak about the Conversations with Great Teachers, invariably I am asked, “What do the great teachers have in common?” 

There is an answer to this question, and it’s pretty much what one would expect. They have passion for their subject, they are good communicators, they are sensitive to what their students are experiencing, and they are good at breaking down learning into a series of logical stages. They never stop growing. Many of them speak of using humor.

But it is also important to note how much they differ. Some lecture, while others never do. Some lead their students like a guide, while others let their students flounder. Some insist on standards of decorum in the classroom, while others cross boundaries. Some wear a tie, others a t-shirt.

There is also something that cannot be codified, a kind of fifth dimension by which a teacher is something more than the sum of his or her good qualities. In our interview, ballet teacher Suke Shorer admitted that there was an intangible something that could not be taught to a dancer, and I think the same is true of great teachers. It brings to mind English teacher John Faggi’s remark, quoting a headmaster he had worked under, about an “authentic presence in the classroom.” That fifth dimension that makes a teacher great resists, but maybe does not defeat, our analysis.

interviewing the famous teachers

Several people have asked how I got interviews with the more famous teachers (George Shultz, Martin Landau, and Ron Washington, for example). It is perhaps surprising, especially since when I interviewed them, I did not have a publisher--or any guarantee that I would ever find one! Well, I just asked. When I started the book, I expected a turn-down rate of maybe a third. But hardly anyone refused my invitation to be interviewed. I found that among the famous and non-famous alike, they all believed in teaching as a noble calling and thus were very willing to contribute to a book about teaching.
     George Shultz took time from his very busy schedule to speak with me in his office at the Hoover Institute. I had wondered what it would be like to speak to a former cabinet member of the Reagan administration, a man whose political positions diverged from my own, to put it mildly. But once we started to converse, we were just two teachers, understanding each other, I think, as only two teachers can.
     I was supposed to interview Martin Landau over lunch, but the restaurant was too noisy, so he took me to a screening of his latest film and then to the Actor's Studio for the interview. We were together for over six hours, and the whole time he exuded a spirit of great hospitality and generosity.
     I met Ron Washington in the clubhouse before a game. He left a meeting with his coaching and scouting staff to talk with me for as long as I wanted. Though any major league manager has reason to be wary of being interviewed (it's hard to think of any position with less job security than theirs), he spoke with me in honesty and sincerity from his first word to his last. 

gifts for teachers

     One of my colleagues (thanks, Connie) pointed out that Conversations with Great Teachers would make a good gift for a teacher. I believe it would, for this reason: reading these interviews is inspiring; they fill me with appreciation, pride, awe and wonder for the profession I’m a part of. Teaching, like acting, is a constant act of giving, and at times teachers feel hungry for others to give to them. I believe these fifty-one great teachers give inspiration. 

teaching as a high level of expertise

    The existence of education departments in universities wouldsuggest that teaching is considered a discipline, like history or chemistry orelectrical engineering. But in the interviews I did for Conversations with Great Teachers, I found that many of theteachers were experts—truly great masters—what they teach fields--from dancing toneurosurgery to making horseshoes. Their mastery, not  “teaching training,” was their foundation, and knowing how toteach was an aspect of that mastery. Suppose one of the highest aspects ofmastering dance or mathematics is expertise in how to teach it. 

     I know that somereally good thinking and good teaching are done in ed schools, but I wonderabout the practice of majoring in education and then taking minimum number ofsubject credits. Should anyone teach history, for example, who is not in somemeaningful sense a true historian? 

Dianne Senchal's article

I just read an excellent article in American Educator(April 2010) by Dianne Senchal, "21st Century Skills: A Fad by Any OtherName? The Most Daring Education Reform of All.” It is a wise and intelligenttake on the current discourse on “education for the 21st century.”Here is a link to the article: https://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/

Education for the 21st Century

     "Education for the 21st century" seems to be the phrase of the day.  Though I'm never entirely sure what it means, it seems to hint that education should be fundamentally vocational.  The unspoken aim is that we have to out-tech India and China. (As when I was a boy in the fifties, we had to out-science the Russians.) And that's why the phrase worries me. Not that I don't believe that engineers, doctors, and plumbers need to train for their professions, but when I think back on my interviews with great teachers, all of them--including the teachers of doctors and plumbers--spoke of higher purposes than job training. Take farriery, for example. There's a vocation. If a farrier doesn't get hired to shoe someone's horse, what's he or she going to do? But Doug Butler, who may well be the best teacher of farriery in the world, talked not about getting a job but about excellence. In the fifth century BCE, Socrates (who was invoked by these fifty-one great teachers more than any other person) spoke derisively of the Sophists because they taught not the pursuit of truth and goodness, but how to get ahead. Like Socrates, these teachers, including those who teach carpenters, doctors, and bakers--teach virtue: excellence, perfection, the betterment of body and soul.

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  1. In their own voices
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