I recently tried out for a teaching gig.* The interviewer pummeled me with questions about the science of education. She asked me how I had used data to make decisions about curriculum and instruction; she referenced techniques from Teach Like a Champion, Dr. Robert Marzano’s “What Works in Schools” series, and Paul Tough’s book about grit; and she quizzed me on formative and summative assessments, SMART goals, token economies, differentiated instruction and adaptive technology.
I wasn’t caught off guard by any of her questions, and I’m pretty confident my answers landed on the “right side” of the bell curve. But, I was surprised by what she didn’t ask. There were no questions about subject knowledge, passion, or empathy, what I like to call, the “Holy Trinity of Teaching.”
“Very strange,” I thought.
Don Rafico was my landlord in Ecuador. He was also a curandero or traditional healer. He had no formal education, but he was incredibly wise. He seemed to know everything about everything – or at least about those things that mattered most to the community. He knew the names and properties of countless medicinal plants and animals; he knew the history (and “business”) of all the families in the parroquia; and he knew myths, allegories and anecdotes that generally made people feel better. When a medical doctor from the city came to town on Sundays, the line for Don Rafico’s consultation was always three times longer.** Everyone trusted the curandero.
Students are often inspired by teachers who earn Ph.D.’s, or who publish books and articles. They listen more attentively to science teachers who hold patents and to coaches who played college ball. History teachers who still read history for pleasure and music teachers who play in bands are generally perceived to be more credible. Kids need intellectual heroes. Having a few curandero-like teachers in school is always a good idea. It makes sense, pun intended.
The Bug Guy
My friend Zack never read a book or took a class on teaching, yet he is one of the best teachers I ever met.
When he was a young boy, like most young boys, he went through a bug phase. Unlike the rest of us though, he never grew out of it. He was obsessed with beetles, butterflies and spiders. He was constantly looking under rocks or breaking apart rotten wood in search of tiny creatures. Friends joked that he would end up working at a zoo. Sure enough, he did – and still does.
Kids (and adults) who visit the Audubon Insectarium in New Orleans are captivated by Zack’s passion. It’s addictive. It’s hard not to get excited (and to learn) about bugs – when you’re in the presence of “The Bug Guy!”
Schools need passionate teachers too – teachers who love teaching AND who love what they teach.*** When they do, even the 3 R’s can be just as exciting as bugs!
Mr. Poirot was my Latin teacher, football coach, dorm master, and college counselor. He was also my role model and mentor. He was knowledgeable and passionate for sure; but, more importantly, he was empathetic. He understood kids. He GOT us.
When Mr. Poirot died, thousands of former students attended his funeral. For us, he had been much more than a teacher - he was our coach!
The ability to relate to kids is an integral part of teaching. It allows us to meet our students where they are, and to take them where they wish to go. Without that personal connection, the science of education is little more than alchemy.
Knowledge, passion and empathy are not always easy to measure, especially in an interview; but, when it comes to teaching, they do matter. In a profession obsessed with numbers, the holy trinity still counts. A lot!
* She offered me the job, but I turned it down. To use the jargon du jour, it didn’t feel like a good “cultural fit.”
** Do Rafico once tried to cure me of pneumonia with a sloth paw, a small statue of Saint Christopher and moonshine. Needless to say, it didn’t work. Even his wisdom had its limits.
*** Children’s ability to detect genuine passion is like a sixth sense. They can see a fraud from a mile away.
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