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Stephanie Salter

September 16, 2010

Stephanie Salter: We’ve all been blessed with at least one who changed us

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

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    March 12, 2010