Reviewed by marketing services coordinator, Mollie Ables
Conversations with Great Teachers is a collection of 51 interviews with different educators and mentors. The subjects and individuals taught by these teachers are incredibly diverse though, as Bill Smoot explains, one of the main objectives of the book is to tease out universals in education. All of the teachers interviewed make up a third of what Smoot calls the “Education Triad,” which is composed of a teacher, a student, and that which passes between them. The interviewees all seem to have similar attitudes toward this triad, which comprises their profession, their students, and the subject that they teach. Great teachers share the attitude that theirs is not a “job,” but rather a calling. They also share humility in knowing that they serve a larger purpose than themselves. This is related to the passion they have for their subject, which they realize is far more important than their own ego or accomplishments.
How the information is passed between student and teacher varies drastically, though great teachers seem to recognize their students as individuals, and understand the different ways in which different students learn. No matter what the subject, as Smoot explains, “every act of learning involves a change in the learner.” Whether the student is acquiring a piece of information or a skill set, they must allow themselves to be taught and, by extension, change.
Often, teachers are not so much imparting information as teaching ways of thinking, habits, and modes of awareness. This requires a certain amount of trust between teachers and students, as well as what Smoot calls a teacher’s “authentic presence.” Smoot explains that “teaching is never reducible to technique,” and that great teachers must be faithful to their own style and principles, rather than what may be pedagogically trendy. This relates to the teachers’ belief in the larger purpose of teaching, which is, arguably, to elevate our level of humanity. Smoot poses: “We ask what makes us human: That we grow our food? Build our shelter? Make art? Wage war? Practice religion? Whatever it is, it gets taught.”
The interviews are divided into sections, some with more concrete distinctions like venue (“Teaching in the School Room,” “Teaching in the College Classroom), or content of curriculum (“Teaching the Athletes,” “Teaching the Healers,” “Teaching the Fixers and Makers”), but also more abstract notions of contributions to society. (“Teaching at the Bottom and on the Edge,” “Growing Body and Spirit”). The teachers interviewed include an elementary school teacher and college professors, but also coaches, a drill instructor, yoga and zen teachers, an exotic dance instructor, an internationally-renowned pastry chef, and MANY others demonstrating just how broadly certain pedagogical principles can apply.
One conversation that immediately captured my attention was in the “Teaching the Athletes” section. Smoot interviews Mike Hileman, an alligator wrestler trainer at Gatorland in Orlando. Hileman has trained alligator wrestlers for the park’s shows for over 16 years. Alligator wrestling may be an unconventional subject, but the parallels with more conventional classroom teaching were immediately apparent. Like all great teachers, Hileman has tremendous passion for the subject he teaches. He has a comprehensive knowledge of his subject, but still recognizes that, even after 16 years, he can still be surprised. (Granted, these “surprises” can be more terrifying with alligators than, say, English Romantic verse.) His relationships with his students are similar to those of most great teachers; he is able to identify their strengths, recognize their potential, and understands that all students learn in different ways and at different paces. Also like other great teachers, Hileman demands that his students have a healthy respect for the subject (and the alligator). At the same time, he makes the subject accessible to allow his students to combat their (quite reasonable) fears.
There are potential hazards constantly looming in every profession. In alligator wrestling, the obvious hazard is a painful or lethal bite. Hileman explains, “One of the first things I tell [my students] is that if you’re going to handle animals—it doesn’t matter if it’s a dog or a cat—the law of averages is going to catch up with you and you will get bit eventually. It might take two months or it might take six years, but if enough time passes, you will make a mistake because we’re human.” Words of wisdom that anyone can apply to their own field.
Conversations with Great Teachers is a book that can be rifled through for inspiration or satisfying a curiosity. It’s definitely useful whether or not you’re a teacher, as it is often more about sharing information and connecting with people than strictly teaching. These connections are important, as everyone has their own alligators to wrestle in life.