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Inside Teaching : April 2011
www.atra.edu.au | firstname.lastname@example.org REVIEWS 53 Conversations with Great Teachers By Bill Smoot Published by Indiana University Press ISBN 9 780 253 354 914 RRP $27.99 Reviewed by Steve Holden As Bill Smoot explains, this book came into being on the model of Studs Terkel’s Hard Times: An oral history of the Great Depression and Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. ‘My wish that he had done a book of interviews with teachers morphed into an idea, then an intent and finally a commitment – I would do one myself,’ writes Smoot. Smoot’s interviews with 51 American teachers, in and beyond schools, reveals some universals: the belief that teaching is not just a job but something of a calling; the view that teaching is more than what you do, it’s who you are; the recognition that good teachers are passionate about teaching; and the understanding that teaching depends on your ‘authentic presence’ and relationship with learners that enables them to trust. That may suggest that Conversations with Great Teachers privileges ‘great teaching’ as the result of innate talent. That’s not the case. As Lynette Wayne, a Year 1 teacher from Minnesota, explains, ‘I became nationally board certified (by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in the United States) in the year 2000. What that process did for me was allow me to put my practice under a microscope and examine it.., deconstruct what I’m doing in the classroom to see if it’s effective, and that’s kept me looking at how to improve my practice as I continue in my career.’ Mind you, Wayne adds, she’s also been influenced by her own Year 1 teacher: ‘I don’t know if I imitate her, but I remember how she made me feel, and that’s what I want my students to feel. I want them to feel valued, and loved and appreciated for what they do.... I just love those “aha” moments when you can just see children lighting up because they’ve learned (something).’ Mind you, Conversations with Great Teachers isn’t just about those ‘aha’ moments. Paul Karafiol, a high school maths teacher from Chicago, confesses, ‘Usually when I have a student who can’t understand something, it’s a function of my own impatience rather than a question of the student’s ability.’ Karafiol also tells his students about some of his difficulties in apprehending mathematical principles. Mike Auerbach, an award-winning high school biology and chemistry teacher from Vermont, admits that the alternative program he runs for at-risk students ‘isn’t designed to have them achieve greater success.’ Equally, though, ‘What’s important for me is helping students identify their talents and pointing out to them why they succeed and why they don’t succeed.’ I like Smoot’s wide focus in this book. Teachers in schools can find plenty in the question-and- answer format with teachers both in schools and beyond, not least 92-year-old fencing teacher Arthur Lane, when asked whether he breaks things down into stages. ‘Oh my God, yes. Speed is your enemy in learning.’ Steve Holden is Editor in Chief – Magazines at ACER Press.