July 31, 2017

Feeling a Teacher's Influence after 70 Years

My interview with Bryan “Skipper” was inspiring — ten hours of taped conversation with a man who had seen so much in his eighty-three years.

He told me about his childhood in Texas and coming west in a covered wagon. He talked extensively about the odd jobs he held as a young man and riding the rails on his way to New Mexico. He described the education he received at SMU in the mid-1920s. He told stories about his family and his fifty-plus years as a Methodist minister. I was enthralled. 

In a matter-of-fact tone he had also talked about some of the great tragedies of his life. Six years before I interviewed him a forest fire had destroyed the cabin where he and his wife had lived for twenty years. With the help of their children they had built the cabin in the 1950s with their own hands. They were both in their seventies when the fire destroyed everything they owned.

He also described the recent loss of his wife after a long illness and much suffering. He had been married to her over fifty years. He also talked about the tragic loss of his son in a car accident only a year before I interviewed him. He told the story about what happened to his son with little sentimentality, little emotion. Old-world stoicism, I thought. Things happen. Life goes on.

During the hours I spent with Skipper, he lost control of his emotions only once — when talking about a teacher he had not seen for almost seventy years. The teacher had tried to keep him from dropping out of school, and when he was telling me about her his voice broke and his eyes filled with tears.

"I had a teacher named Morton and she was one of the best teachers I ever had. She was the only one I remember by name. She begged me not to leave school; in fact, she cried about it. Later in life I tried to find her, I wrote back to San Angelo but they couldn’t locate her.… I tried to find her to tell her I went back to school, but I couldn’t find her." 

When speaking these words Skipper lost his composure and motioned for me to turn off the tape recorder. He needed a moment to wipe his eyes and get control of himself. I respected his wishes and did not record his weeping.

Bryan "Skipper" Hall
SMU Student Body President, 1925-1926
Teachers might be well served to know that story. In the midst of all the hard work and frustration that comes with teaching — during the dark days when teachers often doubt whether they can even remain in the classroom — they can think about Skipper Hall and the teacher who touched him so deeply. Skipper's story should give teachers a broader sense of the importance of their work and the tremendous influence they can have on students. 

If you are a teacher, think for a moment about how seventy years from now an elderly person who has already lived a long, productive, and inspiring life might be thinking fondly of you and how you affected them. It's a humbling thought.

Skipper Hall taught me that teaching can reach far into the future, providing young people with wisdom, hope, and inspiration to last a lifetime.Teaching is, indeed, a noble profession.


If you would like to know more about Bryan “Skipper” Hall, I have published a book based on the interview I conducted back in 1980.

© 2012 James L. Smith

July 28, 2017

The Elements of Teaching

I have seen few descriptions of what it takes to succeed in the classroom better than what I first read over twenty years ago in The Elements of Teaching by James M. Banner and Harold C. Cannon.

According to Banner and Cannon, good teaching contains eight essential elements.

1. Learning: A good teacher loves learning. They have mastered the subject, and their love of learning for the sake of learning is infectious.

2. Authority: A good teacher has authority in the classroom, an authority that comes from the knowledge and character of the teacher. If the teacher is not respected, the teacher’s desire to help students learn is pointless.

3. Order: A good teacher has effective classroom management skills. Good classroom management takes many forms: routine procedures, high expectations, reasonable rules of conduct, realistic expectations, equitable rewards and penalties. An orderly classroom is the place where good teaching begins.

4. Ethics: A good teacher is an ethical person who understands the responsibilities of the profession. An ethical teacher is one who puts the needs of the students before anything else. An ethical teacher is one who is sensitive to the beliefs and culture of every student.

5. Imagination: Good teachers are imaginative. They possess the ability to approach their subject in a way that captures the attention of their students and enhances learning. Good teachers find a way to engage students.

6. Compassion: Good teachers care about their students. They care about making the world better.

7. Character: Good teachers are good people. Good teaching stems from the character and personality of the teacher.
  • Good teachers are authentic human beings. They are the author of their own words.
  • Good teachers are consistent.
  • Good teachers are emotionally stable. Students allow little tolerance for moodiness or emotional outbursts from their teacher.
  • Good teachers are willing and able to acknowledge mistakes.
  • Good teachers are able to strike a balance between being a student’s friend and maintaining an icy detachment from students.
8. Pleasure: Good teachers make learning enjoyable. They find joy in being with students and helping students learn. Good teachers bring a sense of playfulness and fun into the classroom.

Teaching is not easy, to say the least, and I applaud the teachers who go to work every day trying to create a better future for our children and our nation.

© 2010 James L. Smith

July 25, 2017

The Art of Teaching

A decision to teach grows out of a desire to make a difference.

When I first went to college I had to choose a major. I juggled several options — music, law, astronomy, anthropology, communications. 

I chose to teach.

Like a physician motivated by a desire to alleviate suffering and cure disease, I chose my profession with a higher purpose in mind. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help students and serve the needs of my community.

I left college believing that teaching was a noble profession, and I have not changed my mind. In fact, I believe it now more than ever.

The nobility in teaching comes from the faith that teachers have in youth. Faith in youth translates into a faith in the future, and faith in the future translates into a faith in humanity. Teachers who don't possess that faith won’t survive long in the classroom.

And nobody ever said that teaching would be easy. It hasn’t been.

I have seen experienced teachers — those who thought they had seen everything — surprised to discover that students had found new ways to challenge them, new ways to make them feel like rank amateurs. 

Teaching is much more difficult than many people outside the profession seem to understand.

And no teacher gets it right every day because teaching is not a science. Teaching is an art form, and good teachers are like good artists. (1)
  • They bring their own personality and their own spirit into their work.
  • They help people learn what it means to be human.
  • They inspire people to appreciate the best that human beings can achieve.
  • They change people’s lives.
  • They know the success of their work is judged by an abstract standard. Just as you know good art when you see it, you know good teaching when you see it.
Good art and good teaching are essential to making our world better. Both have the ability to make a difference in people's lives. Both are vital to the health of the communities in which we live.

"I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit." – John Steinbeck

Over the years I have learned that mastering the art of teaching required me to address four essential questions. (2)
  1. What do I teach?
  2. How do I teach?
  3. Why do I teach?
  4. Who am I as as a teacher?
The first question was usually answered for me. I was handed a curriculum guide or textbook that provided me with the content of the course I was teaching. For most subjects, a consensus about content was decided long before I taught the course.

The second question took time for me to find an adequate answer. For several years I spent time experimenting, finding my way, attending workshops, talking with other teachers. I eventually discovered the teaching strategies that worked best for me. It took time for me to learn what worked best for me and my students, and what I learned was always evolving.

My answer to the third question has changed over time. I have spent my career in teaching as someone who spends a lot of time reading and learning, looking for a higher purpose to what I do in the classroom. I have also learned how necessary it is to find an answer to this question. Surviving in the profession requires a periodic reminder of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place. If I want to motivate students, I must also keep myself motivated.

"To learn and never be filled is wisdom; to teach and never be weary is love." – Arab Proverb

The fourth question — who am I as a teacher? — penetrates right to the heart of what it takes to succeed in the classroom. Students will work hard for a teacher they respect. A good teacher is most likely to also be a good human being, the type of person who motivates students and makes them want to do their best. I therefore not only try to grow as a teacher, I also try to grow as a person.

Answering these four questions has led me to a better understanding of what it takes to master the art of teaching. To be a good teacher I need to know my subject, as well as the teaching strategies that work best for me and the type of students I teach. I need to clarify the reasons that teaching history is a worthwhile endeavor. I need to be a missionary for my subject and grow as a person so that I am the right person to teach that subject. 


(1) Banner, James M., Jr. and Harold C. Cannon, The Elements of Teaching, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977) pp. 1-6.
(2) Palmer, Parker J., The Courage to Teach, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998) p. 4.

© 2003 James L. Smith ("I was so much older then, I am younger than that now" – Bob Dylan)