By Teachers, For Teachers
In Bill Smoot's book Conversations with Great Teachers, he crosses the nation to find teachers in every realm of life, from the K-12 classroom to the circus to the FBI to the Outback.
Here are a few snippets from his interviews that show just how much teachers have in common, no matter who, where, what or how they're teaching.
Steven Levy, fourth-grade teacher
Steven Levy has taught every grade level from kindergarten through college in twenty-seven years of teaching, mostly fourth and fifth grade. He was recognized as the 1992–1993 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher in 1994–1995, among other education awards. He has also contributed articles to education journals and published a book entitled Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds Its Own Curriculum. We spoke about his teaching of fourth graders.
I think about the age of the fourth grader as the golden age of childhood, like the Greeks before the Romans. They still live in a bit of an ideal world. They have enough of their intellectual faculties to really do important and serious work, but at the same time they have not fallen into cynicism and defiance, and the adolescent hormones have not yet kicked in.
What were your primary goals in teaching that age?
The goals, I think, are as much determined by the local setting as by the develop¬mental level. And it’s changed over the past ten years, so that now the academic preparation for doing well on high-stakes tests has taken over much of teachers’ thinking, even at that grade level. Now content and skills are heavily part of one’s objectives.
I taught in the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, which is a fairly well-off community, so some of my most important goals came from the kind of children that I was teaching. I found that we had a different kind of poverty in Lexington than you might find in the city: in Lexington, the poverty was what I called the poverty of gratitude. These kids are somewhat privileged and have a lot of blessings in their lives, and I came to see that if those blessings didn’t wake up some sense of compassion and service, if they didn’t see the gifts they had as opportunities to make a better world, and if they used those gifts just to boost their own station in life, then those gifts would become negative things and a sense of entitlement would emerge. They wouldn’t be willing to work very hard if it didn’t come easy or the first time, and then you wouldn’t see perseverance that you might find in people who have to struggle in their lives.
So I would do projects that would force them to create things that they took for granted, and really come to appreciate all that it takes to make them happen.
Alexandre Sacha Pavlata, teacher, circus arts
Sacha Pavlata is a fifth-generation circus artist. After growing up in the circus with two performer parents, Sacha followed in their footsteps as a master aerialist. He has performed around the work, including the Big Apple Circus in New York and as a member of the Flying Wallendas.
Sacha has taught circus arts at the Conservatoire National du Cirque in Paris and the New York School of Circus Arts. He currently lives in Massachusetts, where he performs in his own circus company, Cirque Passion. When we spoke he had just returned from teaching a circus arts class to children at the Center for Creative Arts in St. Louis. He speaks with great exuberance in heavily accented English.
Is there a secret to your effectiveness with the children?
Absolutely. It’s very important to be very warm to the kids. Not every teacher has this. You see, I always have two helpers with me, and most times I use circus people. But sometimes those circus people are a little bit cold. Some don’t really like to be teaching, but they do it because I pay them. So they just do it, but their heart isn’t in it. And the kids feel it that they’re not warm. So if I hear complaints, I talk to the teacher and fix this right away, and sometimes I have to change the people.
In teaching, and this is true in regular school, too, you have to give structure and not just beat them up. You can’t just say do this and be always hard. You cannot push them past certain limits. You have to be kind with these kids. I always have a great time with those kids.
Mike Hileman, alligator wrestling trainer
Mike Hileman has worked at Gatorland in Orlando, Florida, for sixteen years, where is now head trainer of the alligator wrestlers and also director of entertainment. He is thirty-five, and he started wrestling alligators when he was nineteen.
I first learned alligator wrestling from a guy that’s been doing this a long time named Tim Williams, and he had learned from another guy. Alligator wrestling has a lineage. It just gets passed on. It goes all the way back to the Seminole Indians in Florida. They’ve been doing it for many generations.
What makes a good candidate for training to wrestle alligators?
First of all, the people have to be somewhat athletic. There are movements involved where you can’t be sluggish. You can’t be extremely overweight. You have to be flexible. So an athletic build is something we’re looking for.
But attitude has a lot to do with it. You don’t want people coming in here thinking that they’re superman and alligators can’t hurt them. You want them to have a respect for alligators, but you don’t want them to be scared to death. So it’s kind of a fine line.
Usually the ones that come in with a healthy respect for the animal, who pay attention while you’re talking, and who do what you tell them—those are the ones that work out. It’s the ones who come in with preconceived ideas of what they want to do and how to do it that tend to be the problem. So if they’re like that, or they’ve got experience elsewhere, you have to untrain them. Or sometimes they’ve watched The Crocodile Hunter on television for seven years and they think they know. Those are the ones that you try to weed out.
Betty Martin, teacher in women’s prison
After retiring from teaching in a public elementary school, Betty Martin started teaching women at the Dr. Eddie Warrior Correctional Facility in Taft, Oklahoma. The curriculum is the creation of NewLife Behavior, a non-denominational Christian ministry based in Texas. We spoke on a Thursday afternoon. The next morning she was to teach her weekly class at the prison.
Currently, we have a class of twenty-two women. It’s a thirteen-week class. This is a faith-based program. We have a structured curriculum to follow, but we also try to get the women talking, to give their own views on things, and to feel a part of the class. It’s not just a Bible study, it’s a study of behavior and, well, of how to change your life, to live a better life. It’s an awfully good course.
When you first started teaching in this program, I imagine you were seeing a side of life you weren’t accustomed to.
Yes, I was. I certainly was. At first, I was a little apprehensive. But I realized that they’re just people—young people, most of them—who have done something against society that caused them to be incarcerated. We’ve had several people who have come into the prison ministry that were really afraid, and I’ve told them, “There’s no need to be afraid.” Because most of these women are wanting to turn their lives around.
Of course, I realize that maybe some aren’t as sincere, but we can’t judge that. We have to accept them for what they are and what they are trying to be.
I’ve been doing it now for ten years, and it’s a blessing to me. It’s something that I look forward to.
Kathy Mitchell, teacher, FBI Academy
Kathy Mitchell has been in law enforcement for thirty-five years, and she has been a special agent with the FBI for twenty. She currently teaches at the FBI Academy on its 385-acre campus in Quantico, Virginia.
I’ve done a variety of teaching here. I’ve taught new agents. I’ve taught in our police executive school. But predominantly what I’m known for around here—and I’ve worked very hard to build a reputation in—is teaching people within the FBI (and other law enforcement personnel) how to teach. Instructor and faculty development happens to be my forte, and that’s something I’ve worked really hard to develop. Teaching is a skill I don’t believe everyone has an innate talent for, but needs to be educated in, so that they can do a better job instructing others. I’ve also been invited to speak to Interpol, over in Lyon, France.
What do you believe are the qualities that make for a good teacher that you try to develop in these instructors at the FBI?
Because we are not an academic institution—our job is law enforcement and national security—it’s my job to bring the educational element to the instructors here. I have to start fairly basic.
One of the most profound principles is that it has to be about the student. That’s a huge concept and one that sometimes people have trouble putting their arms around. It has to be about the learner. Whether you’re teaching a new agent or someone who’s been in law enforcement for twenty-five years, it has to be about what they need and what they have to leave with in order to do their job better….
Another thing I truly believe in is interactive and experiential learning. There has to be some level of practical application attached to it. Adult learners are going to make up their minds about what they need to know, as opposed to what you’re telling them they need to know.
At one point we brought back all of our advanced instructors to be recertified. There were rumblings, of course—“I’ve been teaching for twenty years and now you’re going to make me do this . . .” But everybody came back, and one of the things I stressed was interactive learning. One of the activities I put into the program was that they had to do a ten-minute interactive presentation. They could choose any topic. They’d never done that before. They were saying, “What are you, kidding me?” But they probably had more fun doing that than anything they had done. We had people teaching us how to throw baseballs and what the proper eti¬quette for sushi is. You name it, they did it. Someone did how to wax a surfboard. The point was that they needed to learn how to be interactive, and they needed to teach their students how to be interactive. That exercise made the biggest impact on them, because when they went back to teach the new instructor-development program, they did have the capacity to be more interactive and build experiential learning activities.
To glimpse more insight from these teachers or explore more, check out Conversations with Great Teachers by Bill Smoot! Share insights on your teaching experience in the comments section!