By Teachers, For Teachers
To be a great teacher, you need to learn from other great teachers.
No one knows this better than Bill Smoot, Palo Alto English teacher and author of the recently released Conversations with Great Teachers - a book featuring interviews with 51 leading teachers in every realm from K-12 to clown college to the big leagues.
"Conversations with Great Teachers reads as a wonderful lesson from the heart about teaching, faith, humanity, and passion. . . . Generous in scope, significant in voice . . . an invitation well worth saying yes to," according to Bodie Brizendine, Head, The Spence School, New York City.
Bill shares his experience talking with and learning from this amazing collection of educators.
What spurred you to write this book?
I was always a fan of Studs Terkel’s books of interviews, Working and others. I found them fascinating. I used to wish he would do one with teachers. Then, after reading that he was in failing health and would do no more books, I began to think about doing it myself. I suppose I heard my mother’s voice: “If you want anything done, do it yourself.”
How did you find/choose the educators you’d interview?
A variety of methods. Word-of-mouth, internet searches, serendipity. For example, I contacted sportswriters to find out who were the great teachers in the areas of athletics. I wanted to include a ballet teacher so I started researching the legendary teachers and found Suki Shorer. Martin Landau is a legendary acting teacher, and one of my own former students brought that to my attention.
From the circus instructor to the college professor to the Marine Corp drill instructor, what did all these educators have in common?
Passion and commitment both to teaching and to the subject area. They care so very deeply about what they do. Teaching is a calling, not a job.
They also experience a kind of authenticity in the teaching situation, a kind of natural feeling of belonging to that noble profession.
I was also struck by what they did not say. So much writing about education these days is laden with buzz words—education for the twenty-first century, technology, etc. But these great teachers never used these terms. It was as if they were operating at a level too real and too deep for the jargon du jour.
What question got the best/most interesting responses?
The question that tended to give people pause was when I simply asked what made them good. They were often temporarily dumbstruck. Modesty, I guess.
What teacher did you most identify with? Why?
Craig Campbell, a psychiatry teacher…maybe because he seemed to answer all the questions exactly the way I would have answered them.
What interview/conversation stuck with you the most during this experience?
All of them stuck with me—truly. But the ones that stuck with me the most?
Vince Dunn, the firefighting instructor, because I wanted to be a fireman when I was four, and to some dregree the desire has never left me.
Rhodessa Jones for her fiery soulfulness and charisma.
Suki Shorer because I saw her teach ballet.
Ron Washington because I love baseball and I love how, even as a major league manager, he stills thinks of himself as a teacher.
And the interview with George Shultz stuck with me…I suppose for how completely my angry feelings about his politics evaporated in the context of our just sitting down and talking, one teacher to another.
What is the single most important lesson you learned about teaching from this experience?
Like most lessons, it was more a re-learning than a learning, but one of the most important was what a valuable resource this society has in its great teachers.
How has this changed the way you teach?
A lot of the interviews remain with me as challenges. Tom Nordland’s ideas about teaching awareness keeps coming back to me, and I’ve tried to apply some of it to teaching writing.
To get in on Smoot's conversations with this diverse range of teachers coming out in May, pre-order a copy of Conversations with Great Teachers now!