Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon 1/24/2005 4:11 AM
Random Thought: What Does It Takes To Be A Teacher: An Interview, III

Well, that student who had done a telephone interview with me a few months ago, sent me what he says is the last of the transcripts of our conversation. I guess I said a lot more than I imagined. I thought I'd share some of the pertinent portions of this transcript with you. He began:

".....What do you think, then, are the qualities of a teacher that guarantee success?"

"There are none."


"I don't have any guarantees, or magic incantations, or sure-fire tricks. The problem is that too many people think there are, that there are some quick and easy things you can do to guarantee success. The only guarantee I have is that there are no guarantees. There are characteristics that give the teacher a better chance of being successful, but no guarantees. But first, before I give those characteristics to you, what do you mean by success? That is, when is a teacher successful?"

"Well, my professor says it's the achievement of subject mastery by the student."

"You know in graduate school we once spent two back-to-back semesters in seminars--two semesters--studying one year--one year--1789, in the French Revolution. And, we didn't even scratch the surface. Subject mastery? With all due respect to your professor, he's falling back on cliché. He chasing a rainbow without a pot of gold at the end. And, if you did come upon a pot of gold, it would be fool's gold....."

"Well, I mean, then, wouldn't you say we could determine success in terms of GPA, honors, awards, and so on?"

"Well, you're assuming that these are proper indicators of long-term learning as opposed to short term grade-getting or score-making as the bean-counters would have you believe. Getting a grade or GPA is far different from being instilled with a life-long love of learning. But, that's for another interview. Let's not get into that. I'll say this. The successful teacher creates a seratonin rush around him or her. Do you know what I mean by that?"


"The successful teacher has to diminish anxiety, apathy, fear, feelings of worthlessness, depression. The successful teacher gets others to curl lips, to show teeth, to brighten eyes, to light up faces. I include in my meaning of "success" a reaching out to a student, touching that student, and altering his or her life. In one sentence: successful teaching is helping someone to start transforming themselves, to help them help themselves become the person they are capable of becoming. Do that and you've changed the world and altered the future. Don't do that and you're wasting your time. So, in no particular order, here they are the qualities you asked for that I would list. Actually, they're more criteria of what I'll call "reflective hows" than characteristics:

1.  how empathetic you are?
2.  how much of your authority is based on influence rather than on
3.  how much of a deep sense of meaning and purpose is in your teaching?
4.  how much you have reflected upon and articulated your philosophy of
5.  how much value are you to each student?
6.  how much to help each student; how much love you can inspire?
7.  how much do you continue to grow and develop?
8.  how much you give to those who are in need the most?
9.  how much do you teach outside and beyond yourself?
10. how much beauty you can see and appreciate in both yourself and each
11. how much beauty you can help a student see and appreciate in both
him/herself and others?
12. how much you serve and give?
13. how much true and lasting value you create?
14. how much do you so deeply believe in what you're doing that you accept
inherent risks of pushing the envelope?
15. how much do you follow after others and how much do you lead yourself?
16. how much you care about each student?
17. how much of a sense of otherness you possess and exercise?
18. how much you look at your potential and stretch yourself into everything
you can become?
19. how much you help each student look at his or her potential and stretch
him/herself into everything he or she can become?
20. how much a positive difference you make in each student's life?
21. how much you're sensitive to how what you say, feel and do effects each

"....That's a hard 'how much' list of questions to think about..."

"Sure it is. That's why it's important. You learn from hard, not from easy. You may crave the unchallenging easy and the risk-free familiar and the comfortable routine, but you grow from the hard and unfamiliar and unique. Hard means you're stretching and reaching beyond yourself. Hard means entering new and unknown worlds and thereby expanding your world. Hard means to admit to your weaknesses and give it all you've got to transform them into strengths. Hard means turning a weakness into a strength. Hard means looking as foolish and wobbling and falling down as when you first learn to ski, skate, or ride a bicycle. I've found that true success is not being better than someone else; it is being better than you used to be--in everyway."

".... but aren't you just asking someone to change what he does?"

"No, it's more than that. I'm more than suggesting you have to change who you are. I am saying that the most successful teachers are not the ones who know the most, or the ones who are most renown, or the ones who are the smartest...."

"....But, what if you're not comfortable doing a lot of that or don't have the time...."

"Everyone has the time, if they want to make the time. And, convenience and comfort, and even safety, are not in the mix. Teaching, like life itself, without risk is lifeless. Think about five things. First, your respect for a student depends on how much respect, trust, and love you have for yourself. Your respect for a student also depends on how much respect you have for teaching. Whenever you judge a student, you're really judging and revealing yourself. Once you label a student as a 'don't belong,' you've imposed limits on, if not negated, both that student and yourself. Judging a student doesn't make him or her who he or she is, but it does reveal who you are. What does not live in you cannot thrive in your classes. Second, would your professor accept from you that statement, 'It's hard' or 'I'm not comfortable doing that' or 'I didn't have the time' as a reason not to do an assignment?"

"Probably not. No."

"Then, what's the grounds for the professor accepting it from himself? That is, on one hand how can the teacher ask a student to push and stretch and on the other hand accept not pushing and stretching himself? How can a teacher demand a student strive for his or her unique potential if the teacher doesn't do it himself. A teacher cannot give or demand what the teacher doesn't have to give or demand of himself. It would be a gross violation of a kind of golden rule: you'd be demanding of others what you won't demand of yourself. Third, if you learn to enjoy a challenge, if you learn to enjoy adventure, what you do and where you are will be more enjoyable. I'm not sure you can improve what you're doing if you really don't enjoy doing it. Sure, you can find reasons to be miserable, but miserable isn't the best material with which to build things. You'll wind up with a miserable structure or put your energy into other things that you do enjoy doing like research and publication. Enjoying a challenge I have found puts you in a more positive position and a better frame of mind to do something positive and see the value you're able to help create. Fourth, the more genuine you feel for each student, the more blessed your teaching will be, had then you'll find real, lasting success and fulfillment and joy flowing into the classroom. If you think and act beyond yourself, the sky's the limit for success. Fifth, it is a simple truth that every thing you do now that feels comfortable, every place where you are now that feels secure, was once unknown, uncomfortable, challenging, threatening, and intimidating to you. What was once took a lot of effort is now more effortless. What wa s once strange is now familiar. What once you could not do you're competent at doing. What once you were unsure about you're now confident about. What does that say? It says there are always more things you can do, higher levels you can reach, farther places you can go, more you can reach out for and touch. Push and stretch yourself and you'll discover something truly empowering: your unimagined, unique potential and you'll help each student do likewise. Now, that is success! Is this enough....."

"......yes, thanks...."

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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