Category Archives: Education

What Is Intelligence?

College Graduation

Dad, Mom, and Me at my College Graduation

An unimaginable luxury before I left the classroom to work as a content specialist, the past few days have given me a respite while most of my colleagues returned to work.  For the first time in 35 years, I worked between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and took a vacation as teachers were returning to the classroom to prepare their students for semester exams.

But I’m not sure anyone who feels called to be a teacher can ever stop thinking about kids.  Even after five years out of the classroom, I still have school dreams—where I’m late and on my way to school in my pajamas, where I can’t find my way to the room where kids await, or where I have no control over the students I’m supposed to be teaching.

And, in the same way, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop thinking about what I’ve taught my students or what they’ve taught me.  I began teaching 35 years ago this month.  A poor kid who went to college on an aid package of scholarships, grants, and work study, I finished college in 3 ½ years, anxious to earn money and find that better life my coal miner father assured me I’d have if I got a degree.  And though I’ve worked hard, I’ve had an easier life than my parents—able to offer my daughter more opportunities than my parents were ever able to offer me, though they wanted what was best for me.

Because of this, when I think about education, I’m bothered by a climate where the contributions of people who don’t have an education are sometimes not valued.  I believe that we should offer all students a course of study that prepares them for higher education if that is the path they choose.  But I also believe that the person who repairs my car and the person who comes to my house to unclog my drain have knowledge and skills that I don’t have—skills that should be equally valued, even though they chose not to get a college degree.

Not every person who has a college degree is wise.  And not every person who has only a high school diploma, or even the person who dropped out, is unintelligent.  My husband and I laugh about the time when our plumber, a father of two daughters, gave us a very practical lesson in parenting.  He had been my husband’s former student, never interested in school but always a hard worker out of school and the person we always had confidence in when we needed a plumber.  He sat on the floor, working deftly to replace cheap, faulty pipes installed by our builder that began to spring numerous pinhole leaks as the house aged.  He talked easily as his hands worked, and we chatted about the challenges of parenting teenage girls.  I mentioned that I wished I could get my daughter to stop slamming doors, and he told us a very funny story about removing his daughter’s bedroom door from the hinges and telling her he’d replace it when she convinced him she could stop slamming it.  She stalked off to the bathroom, her younger sister on her heels, begging her not to slam the bathroom door, lest it, too, should be removed.  The next time my daughter slammed the door, we told her that if she did it again, we would use our plumber’s solution.  I don’t think she ever slammed a door again.

While that’s just a humorous anecdote in our family, I could easily tell many more important things I’ve learned from people who haven’t had the opportunities for higher education that I’ve had.  Someone once told me that we have something to teach and something to learn from every person we meet.  I learned many lessons from my father, not the least of which was the value of a college degree, though he was far from perfect and had only a fifth grade education.  And while I parent differently from my mother, I learned from her, among many other things, what it means to love unconditionally and to be strong in the face of adversity.

So how do we find a way to honor each other’s intelligence?  I’ve thought about this a lot since the presidential primary, when our president was called an intellectual snob—a president who, like me, had to work hard for his degree.  I don’t believe that was a fair assessment of a leader who wants others to have the opportunities he’s had.  But while teaching in a highly charged academic environment in the Washington suburbs, I have encountered many intellectuals who have denigrated those who don’t place the same value on a PhD.

As with most things, the answer lies at neither extreme.  How do we find a balance?  I’m not sure.  But I believe we begin by telling the stories of people from all walks of life who defy the stereotypes of what it means to be intelligent in a world of different kinds of intelligence.

So tell me those stories.

What Is a Great Teacher?

Dr. Shrewsbury

Why is it that social gatherings where a teacher is present inevitably lead to horror stories about kid-killer teachers or absurd tales about incompetent ones? Though many of us have teachers who change our lives, those are rarely the narratives we hear in our social dialogue.

Perhaps it’s because the consummate teachers consistently do great things without fanfare every day. They engage us, they lure us in, they make us love their subject through their own passion. But if asked to name one thing that teacher did, most of us have to think hard before we can point to a single moment that would do justice to the skill of a master teacher.

Dr. James B. Shrewsbury became my adviser the second semester of my freshman year.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I changed subjects twice before I landed in his English 102 class, the second semester of freshman composition.  He was a short, wiry man with white hair, piercing blue eyes, and a Santa-style white beard. When he was thinking hard or listening carefully, he chewed his upper lip, almost as if he were tasting his thoughts before he voiced them.

He began the class by having us read short stories and imitate the sentence styles of great writers, and for the first time I learned that I could sometimes capture beauty in the flow of a sentence.  And when we read Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity,” a story about a young girl who visits a nursing home solely to get points as a Campfire Girl, I wrote a paper analyzing every literary device in the story to show how the young girl is visiting the home for all the wrong reasons.  But I entirely missed the wry humor in the story.

As the teaching assistant handed back the papers, Dr. Shrewsbury turned on the overhead and projected an essay onto the screen.  I recognized the paper, my name removed but the tight curl of the cursive distinctively my handwriting.  Dr. Shrewsbury walked us through the paper, pointing again and again to its strengths.  As he got to the end, he pointed to his closing comment—A very good first paper!  I breathed a sigh of relief…until he continued.

“But let’s look at this one word the writer used.  The writer has pointed out that the little girl isn’t really performing an act of charity, and that’s right.  But do you think this is the right word?”

Pointing to a phrase near the bottom of the first page, Dr. Shrewsbury touched his finger to the words the debauchery of Marian’s motives.  He smiled when it was clear that no one in the room, least of all the writer, knew what the word meant, and then explained that the word did indeed mean corrupt, the word the writer seemed to intend, but that it had the connotation of a dirty old man.

Chewing his upper lip, he stroked his beard and allowed himself the hint of a smile as the class laughed.  “There you have it,” he said.  “Never use a thesaurus to try to make yourself sound more intelligent.  Use it to remind yourself of words you already know.  Or take the time to learn the nuances of the word.”

Miserable, I couldn’t meet his eyes as I left the classroom.  Though he had been gentle, I had rarely received criticism on my work in high school.  It would be years before I could laughingly tell that story to my own students to prevent them, in advance, from suffering similar humiliation.

But at the end of the semester, Dr. Shrewsbury invited me to be his student assistant for his freshman composition classes.  He assured me that I was a “born teacher,” and he made me believe in myself.  After that, I signed up for every course he taught, garnering far more credits in English than were required for certification.

But how did he do that?  I don’t really remember.  The story I do remember could have been one of silent chagrin in the hands of a lesser teacher.  But Dr. Shrewsbury taught me by both word and example to find something to praise before pointing out weaknesses.  And while no teacher is ever perfect for every child, this is Dr. Shrewsbury’s legacy.

So tell me about a teacher who deserves your gratitude.  Or better yet, tell the teacher.