What makes a school good? More than any other single factor, the answer is good teaching. While many of us, myself included, were never fortunate enough to go to particularly good schools when we were children, we occasionally lucked into a good teacher—someone who genuinely cared about us, really enjoyed teaching, and had a sense of humor—and what an enormous difference this person made in the quality of the experience.
Research like the Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation, confirms the value of good teaching. The recently completed landmark study closely followed the lives of 180 kids born into poverty from conception through age 30 in order to determine why some were able to transition into successful adult lives and others were not. After all the numbers were crunched, one difference in particular stood out: nearly 100% of the resilient participants had an influential teacher in high school who took a special interest in them.
This uncomplicated fact makes Stuart Grauer’s book Real Teachers: True Stories of Renegade Educators a must read for all educators, regardless of their educational philosophy. What immediately drew me to the book was how little space the author spends discussing philosophy, even though he started, and still directs, a highly successful school with an unconventional approach to learning. His focus instead remains on the essential elements of, as he likes to put it, “real teaching.”
Grauer draws his insights from over 40 years of experience as a teacher, school founder, accreditation evaluator, and consultant helping others start schools on four different continents. Interestingly, however, his vehicle for delivering those insights is seldom what goes on inside the four walls of a classroom, rather they emerge from journals he kept while leading his students on semiannual service-oriented, cultural immersion experiences. Which brings me to another reason why I liked the book so much: A great many of the students I took on very similar trips came from the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum—my school was an inner-city one while Grauer’s is in a wealthy suburb—and yet we reached the same conclusions about teaching.
First and foremost, according to Grauer, real teachers know when to step aside and let the experience itself do the work. He calls this education’s Socratic Oath: First, do not prevent learning. On a Habitat for Humanity project in a rural Mexican village, for instance, Grauer and his students are fellow laborers using picks and shovels to dig a large hole for a new home’s septic system. About this experience he reflects, “Our students dug down deeper than any grave. They shed impatience, fear, cliquish behaviors, victim mentality, and the ego that gets in the way of humility and tolerance across cultures. They left all of this in the earth they had dug together, and then we left.”
For Grauer, teaching isn’t something a well-trained professional does to students. In his words,
“Real teaching is what resonates between (emphasis mine) the teacher and the student. It doesn’t reside in an individual, it resides in a relationship. As teachers, our impact can be measured in the transformation of our students as they transform and redefine us.”
Real teachers thus view their work as a mutual exchange, and they are open to getting back as much as they give. By way of example Grauer describes an interaction with a group of students who were preparing to lead a forum on gender roles and gender equity for his school’s yearly Tolerance Day. He pulled out all the stops, including telling a favorite personal teaching tale from his own youth, to try to convince them to address what he considered to be the deeper dimensions of freedom and equality. But the students weren’t having it. For them there was nothing more fundamental and more urgent than gender equity, and that was that. And their forum was a resounding success.
The moral of the story for Grauer: “Some would say a real teacher is one who makes his point persuasively, with power and imagery and conviction. But I tried that and would no longer say it’s true. Real teachers are fundamentally there to invite and listen to the passions of their students. The more we hear the better we become and the greater the chance that we can ultimately provide them with compassionate service.” And then, “But the real teaching is not in the stories, it is in the faith we have in our students. A posse of renegade students taught me to trust that if I lived the lessons imparted in my own stories, they would do the same. The real teachers are our students.”
Along the way Grauer stops to lament how, in the current “age of fear,” parents are having an increasingly hard time letting their children make mistakes and find their own way. Many today believe it is their responsibility to keep their kids on the straight and narrow path to success, which he refers to as “the race to the cubicle.” Likewise, real teaching is endangered by the age of fear’s ramped up standards and testing mandates, and bureaucratic control at every level. But what, he asks, about the complaints of Ivy League admissions officers that the nation’s best and brightest have become masters of compliance and lack vision and passion?
Grauer’s solution is embedded in his school’s motto, “Learn by Discovery,” which he says marketing consultants have criticized for being too “childish” for a grade 6-12 college prep school. Another remedy is “the fearless teacher”—“one who seizes the time to engage and understand the minds of his students … and who insists on creating a learning environment where this is possible again.”
A leader in the “Small Schools Movement,” Grauer also decries the nationwide trend toward standardization and consolidation, with the number of students attending schools with over 1,500 students growing exponentially. In one especially accurate potshot, he lets a California farmer he met on one of his trips do the talking. Likening monocropping and large-scale corporate agriculture to standardized, consolidated schools, Paul Newkirk tells Grauer and the children while they are sitting around his dining room table, “Schooling kids is a lot like growing crops. [Farmers] can’t get heirlooms anymore. If we want to sell what we grow we have to stick to the standard picks of the big chains. … In America we get fast food schooling. … The schools keep getting bigger—it’s got nothing to do with our lives out here, or our living, nothing from our area. It’s one size fits all. The kids all learn the same thing from one region to the next, just like the local crops getting crowded out.”
Agreeing with the Ivy League talent scouts Newkirk concludes, “Who wants standardized kids?”
A good place to get a copy of the book is from the Community Works Institute bookstore , which is featuring it as a fundraiser.