Learning About Learning with Bill Smoot 

The Berkeley author examines what makes good teachers good, even when they teach alligator-wrestling.

Having taught at every level from K-12 to college, Bill Smoot has instructed thousands of students. As the possessor of a Ph.D from Purdue University, he's absorbed skills and wisdom from hundreds of teachers.

How teaching happens — part dialogue, part monologue, part memorization, part alchemy — fascinates the Berkeley resident. To research his new book Conversations With Great Teachers, Smoot spent nearly two years meeting educators, from a first-grade teacher to a ballet instructor to a woman who teaches yoga in jails to a man who trains adults to wrestle alligators. Each walks a different path, yet all share certain qualities in common, Smoot said.

"Great teachers have great passion for teaching," he said. "For them, teaching is not merely a job, but a calling. They have an ability to tune in to their students and know when they understand and when they do not understand. They care deeply and passionately for and about their students."

Their methods varied widely. Some were gentle, some aggressive. Some were nearly invisible, some larger than life. They perform alchemy in that "every act of learning involves a change in the learner. Acquiring a fact is a small change; learning to act, to perform surgery, or to be a soldier ... is a larger transformation. The student who once did not understand poetry but now loves it is a new person."

The student-teacher relationship rests on trust, humility, patience, and what Smoot calls "the excitement of thinking beyond the given." During his interview with a ninetysomething fencing teacher, the aged athlete "cradled my hands in his and adjusted my grip. Then he had me move the foil this way and that, explaining why this grip was the best, and I understood in both my hand and my mind that it was. The understanding was embodied, literally," remembered the author, who will be at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Tuesday, October 12.

The economic crisis has put teachers into high focus: their unions, their salaries, and their relative levels of competence.

"I suppose teacher quality is a long continuum, from great to good to mediocre to really bad. It's also true that ... teaching and learning are a joint effort; a student who lacks motivation, curiosity, and effective effort is not likely to learn much from even the greatest teacher," Smoot said.

"Great teachers are passionate not just about teaching but about their subject matter. Vince Dunn not only loves teaching rookie firefighters, but he is passionate about fires: He studies them, and writes articles about them. He will talk to you with great enthusiasm about backdraft and flashover and the collapse of burning buildings. And that was true of all the teachers, whether their field is math, physics, literature, horseshoes, or ballet. They love their subject area and they know it with the expertise of a master.

"Great teachers find the method that best suits them, and they soar," Smoot continued. "Teaching may well be more an art than a science." 7 p.m., free. BooksInc.net

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