Teaching is an act of faith in the future, a high-stakes wager.
— Bill Smoot, “Conversations with Great Teachers”
It likely would surprise any surviving members of the Purdue University administration, circa 1969, to open Bill Smoot’s new collection of interviews, “Conversations with Great Teachers,” and read the author’s tender and inspiring introduction.
As an undergraduate at Purdue during the most socially and politically turbulent time in the history of the university, Smoot was a constant pain in the administration’s neck. Editor-in-chief of the daily campus newspaper, the Exponent, Smoot was the symbol of rising student unrest and rebellion against authority. His open-door approach to the content of the Exponent’s opinion page got him fired by President Frederick L. Hovde, then rehired when the entire senior staff of the paper threatened to walk out in protest.
That was radical stuff for a school that was politically locked into the 1950s despite Vietnam and the sexual revolution.
Smoot, now 63, took his Boilermaker bachelor’s degree in philosophy to Northwestern, where he earned a master’s and doctorate in the same field. After teaching at Miami of Ohio, he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has taught middle school and high school students since the late 1970s.
As he explains in “Conversations with Great Teachers” (Indiana University Press), Smoot had always hoped that one of his writer role models, Studs Terkel, would produce a series of interviews with gifted teachers. When Terkel died without producing such a work, Smoot realized he should write the book.
From June 2007 to January 2009, in person and by telephone, Smoot interviewed 51 women and men across the country about their chosen profession. Their range of arenas — from K-12 to prison to major league baseball to exotic dancing — is broad, delightful and enlightening.
As Smoot writes in his introduction, “ … among this diversity of people, disciplines, and styles of teaching, I found universals … One commonality is that they all regard teaching as not just as a job but as a calling, a combination of serious purpose and sacred commitment to that purpose.”
A first-grade teacher told him, “Teaching chose me.”
The name “most often invoked” by his interview subjects: Socrates.
Among Smoot’s group of interviewees are the Academy Award-winning actor Martin Landau, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, and George Shultz, who served as secretary of state to Ronald Reagan.
Landau, 79, has been teaching acting since his 20s and numbers among his recent students such stars as Johnny Depp, Jim Carrey and Matt Damon. Smoot says in an editor’s note that he asked Landau one question about teaching and the actor talked for two hours in answer. His insistence that students “really embrace” their fears and “team up with their feelings and not be afraid of their feelings” is fundamental to Landau’s teaching philosophy.
A student’s feelings are important to Washington, too. In a clubhouse interview, he told Smoot of his approach: “I’m willing to let you have your say, which is something that the best teachers do. I’ve got all the knowledge in this, but I’m still going to let you say what you feel, because there’s no way I can help you if I don’t know how you’re feeling.”
Shultz, a former university professor as well as Cabinet member, is a distinguished fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, where Smoot conducted the interview. They discussed mentoring such people as Condoleezza Rice and learning from such “instinctive” teachers as Reagan.
Referring to some of the best advice he ever received, from a congressional relations veteran named Bryce Harlow, Shultz said, “Never make a commitment unless you are sure and determined to carry it out. And if you make a commitment and it turns out to be hard to carry it out, just break your neck to carry it out — because that’s your credibility.”
As rich as the interviews are with well-known teachers, some of the best of Smoot’s book comes from the people who are known only to their legion of appreciative students. Smoot has divided the collection into 10 categories: teaching in the school room, the college classroom, “at the Bottom and on the Edge” (in prisons), “in the Corridors of Power,” teaching healers, creators and performers, “fixers and makers” (a culinary professor, a carpenter instructor), athletes, “the Protectors” (an FBI instructor, a Marine drill instructor), and people who grow “the body and spirit.”
The college classroom segment allows Smoot to present the ideas of a man he says changed his life, the novelist, essayist and philosophy professor, William Gass. Now retired from his longtime post at Washington University in St. Louis, Gass set Smoot (and many Purdue students) on fire in his lectures in the 1960s.
Rather than mere lectures, Smoot writes in his book’s introduction, Gass’ were “cathedrals built of language, rendering the best philosophy of the ages with a clarity that made them beautiful.” Gass was one of those teachers “who can raise the lecture to such an art that the receptive student, hearing such a lecture, is forever transformed …”
Smoot’s great teachers talk about the crucial need for “authenticity” and real “presence” in the company of their students, about building trust, about the obligation to see each student as an individual and to dig for the unique “genius” in each. They also warn of the lethal pitfall of viewing teaching as a one-way street, from pedagogue to empty vessel.
Rather, Smoot writes, great teachers know that the process of teaching is a triad: “The triad is the teacher, the student, and that which passes between them; and what passes between them both constitutes and depends upon a human relationship. The teacher’s care is the current that carries what passes between them.”
Interviewing the 51 teachers, Smoot confides, served as an antidote to decades of disillusionment that he carried in the wake of so many failures by his revolutionary generation to foment real change. Along with a change in national leadership, Smoot says, the teachers instilled “a belief in America greater than any I’ve felt since I was a student in high school.”
As he writes, “Theirs is indeed a fierce humanity, and, experiencing it, I have felt inspired and filled with hope by the value and importance of what they do.”
If that is not enough to shatter old memories of a troublesome campus radical, it should be noted that Smoot’s splendid book is dedicated to his late mother, Helen Rozan Smoot, “who was my greatest teacher.”
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Teaching is an act of faith in the future, a high-stakes wager.
Noteworthy in the news: Another landmark for Pat Rady
A few weeks ago, Pat Rady embarked on his 50th year as a head basketball coach. Last weekend, he punctuated his landmark season at Cloverdale High School in Putnam County with the 724th victory of his stellar career, a mark that makes him the second winningest coach — and tops among active coaches — in Indiana basketball. It’s a remarkable achievement, and he appears to be going strong.
- Readers’ Forum: Dec. 11, 2013
RONN MOTT: Seeds from the same tree
Mahatma Gandhi, who was born in India before the turn of the 20th Century, went to England to study law and decided to settle in South Africa, and he did for 20 years. His work in South Africa was involved in the right of his Indian neighbors to have equal access to civil rights. He also worked for the indigenous people as well. When the people of India became restive during the early days of World War I, Gandhi came home.
READERS’ FORUM: Dec. 10, 2013
• Proud of diploma from McLean HS
• Sports could use drone’s eye view
• Another great downtown fest
• ISU’s silence is disappointing
MS. TAKES: Important date passes by without much notice
Recently we were asked to share our memories of the Kennedy assassination. Folks were interviewed for television or radio, or were asked to recall exactly what they were doing when they got word that our president had been murdered.
GUEST EDITORIAL: Lack of vaccinations puts children, community at risk
U.S. vaccination programs appear to have become a victim of their own success. Because many parents have never experienced the effects of childhood diseases such as mumps or measles — let alone polio — they don’t always appreciate the health risks the diseases pose and the continuing need for vaccinations.
Readers’ Forum: Dec. 9, 2013
Remove politics from education
FLASHPOINT: Dealing with hunger requires less rhetoric, more action
In November, millions of families in Indiana and across the nation saw their Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits cut through a planned phase-out of a temporary increase in funding that originally took place during the 2009 recession.
READER FORUM: Dec. 8, 2013
• Diving in to pool project
• A timely review of food basics
• Name-calling shows sad state of our politics
• Republicans their own worst enemy
• Full attack on common sense
EDITORIAL: Refusing to accept injustice, Mandela made world a better place
Injustice seldom ceases easily. Humans rationalize entrenched systems of persecution. Oppressed people or ideas get painted as a danger to the peaceful social order — the status quo. Cast in that image, inequality appears acceptable, even necessary, to the masses.
Time for a tour?
There’s an essay-type question that shows up on history exams, college applications, “Saturday Night Live” skits and quite possibly requests for platinum credit cards.
GUEST EDITORIAL: Congress now free from the threat of too much work
The headline on the Congress-watching newspaper Politico said it all: “Done.”
RONN MOTT: A friend celebrates his 90th
I went to Charlie Fox’s 90th birthday party Sunday last. He was standing greeting people as they came in the door. I never saw him sit down even one time. He looked more like a man celebrating his 60th rather than his 90th.
Editorial: Bring on the ‘Miracle’
For five miraculous years, Terre Haute’s Christmas festival on a Friday night in early December has grown and prospered.
- Readers’ Forum: Dec. 6, 2013
RONN MOTT: Cigars
Leaving Baesler’s Market the other day, making my round of errands, I started to re-light my cigar. It was left over from the day before and I did not place it in the humidor. It had gotten too dry, so I threw it into my garbage sack asking myself the question, “Why do I do this?” Well, I do it because I enjoy it.
TRIBUNE-STAR EDITORIAL: Changing attitudes demand GOP action
From all indications, the Republican Party’s legislative leadership will punt away in its next session the opportunity to make a good decision on behalf of all Hoosiers about placing a same-sex marriage ban in the state’s constitution.
READERS’ FORUM: Dec. 5, 2013
• Anarchy is in the ‘tea’ leaves
Editorial: Help us spread holiday cheer
The kind and generous people of the Wabash Valley are called upon often to help those less fortunate. We are proud to live an area where that call never goes unanswered.
- Readers’ Forum: Dec. 4, 2013
RONN MOTT: Cats, Inc.
I suppose we should give her a cake and a candle, but she would be happier with a handful of “treats” you can find wherever you shop for groceries. I’m talking about the two-year anniversary of the first cat we adopted. If we had known there were going to be more, her name probably would have been different. She was Orange Crush, a small, bedraggled, starving, Golden Tabby female that wandered into our yard a little after Thanksgiving. She had been badly maltreated.
MS. TAKES: Plenty of downsides to tree with candlelight
I had been spinning my wheels over Thanksgiving preparations the other day, so my Best Friend took me out for breakfast — a little luxury I never tire of. Our friend, Bill, stopped by our table to offer holiday felicitations and the conversation turned, as it often does this time of year, to Christmas.
READERS’ FORUM: Dec. 3, 2013
• Prestige chosen over practicality
• Tea partiers love country, freedom
• Same old clowns
LIZ CIANCONE: Plenty of downsides to tree with candlelight
I had been spinning my wheels over Thanksgiving preparations the other day, so my Best Friend took me out for breakfast — a little luxury I never tire of.
Readers’ Forum: Dec. 3, 2013
Prestige chosen over practicality
Tea partiers love country, freedom
Same old clowns
EDITORIAL: For NESC, transparency best option
The five-member board of the Northeast School Corp. of Sullivan County is in the midst of tough times as it faces a difficult decision on the future of its schools, including Union High School in Dugger.
Readers’ Forum: Dec. 2, 2013
‘Ask not …’: Living by the words we speak
MARK BENNETT: ABA’s record proves Bobby Leonard’s a legit Hall of Famer
Bobby Leonard symbolized the feisty competitive flair of the old ABA.
EDITORIAL: Preserving, improving our parks
Few amenities more greatly affect the quality of life in Terre Haute than its public parks.
FLASHPOINT: Getting right with history
I am ornery enough to never much worry about whether I am on the “right” side of history.
- More Opinion Headlines
- Noteworthy in the news: Another landmark for Pat Rady