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Curiosity, not credentials, mark of superior educators



Remarks made during Hilton Head Rotary Club's teacher recognition program, Oct. 16, 2014, at Sea Pines Country Club.


Let me start by thanking the Rotary Club for the invitation to speak today, particularly since today's program touches on something near and dear -- teachers.


I'm told I was recommended for this engagement by Jill McAden, the principal at Hilton Head Island Elementary. Jill is a dear lady and the long-suffering wife of my former boss, Fitz McAden, who retired as executive editor of The Island Packet on Aug. 1. Fitz certainly is familiar with the demands that come with being an educator, or at least of living with one. Jill certainly could have recommended that he speak today. However, I suspect Fitz has not yet completed her honey-do list yet. OR, Jill knows her husband is an inveterate food mooch, who might pick your plates clean on his way to the podium. … Jill does have a reputation to uphold.


In all seriousness, I suppose Jill thought of me because she knows my wife is a teacher. In fact, my wife --- Debi Kidd --  was Beaufort High School's teacher of the year for the 2011-2012 school year. I know how much that award meant to her. I also know that she sometimes wondered aloud if she really deserved it. She looked upon her co-workers, most of them as tireless and intelligent as she is, and wondered if there wasn't someone just a little more worthy. She always seems to worry that she’s not doing enough for her students or that she lacks adequate command of the subjects she teaches. My bet is that one or two of the teachers we honor here today -- maybe all 15 of you -- harbor similar feelings from time to time.


There’s no doubt that good teachers need confidence and authority to stand every day before students with heads full of mush and mouths full of questions. Efficacy is part of being an effective educator. But I would argue that so, too, is a touch of doubt. Doubt is the seed of inquiry. Doubt informs your sense of curiosity.


And it’s curiosity, after all, that pushes us to keep learning, well beyond the end of our formal education. Curiosity gives us joy in the process of learning. Curiosity reminds us that knowledge is boundless and nourishing. Knowledge is not a bludgeon used to assert superiority over our neighbor. And like the curiosity of which it is borne, knowledge is not an endpoint. To the contrary, these are the vehicles -- curiosity and knowledge – in which teacher and pupil travel together.


So if any of you here today feel a bit of gnawing doubt or wonder if you measure up to the other teachers here today -- I’ll tell you what I tell my wife. DOUBT BUT DO NOT WORRY. Because measuring is not teaching. Teaching is about the things you do to inspire curiosity, and it's about what your own sense of curiosity inspires you to do.


In my wife's case, it’s forging relationships beyond the classroom, whether it’s giving a kid a ride home from school or getting involved in service clubs. (She's the school's Interact sponsor, working with the Lowcountry Rotary Club, by the way.) And it entails an effort to become more authoritative in her subject areas, by means as time-consuming as taking out-of-town summer classes or as simple as flipping on Nat Geo after a long work day at work.


This is why I’m excited about this speaking opportunity for a second reason. I’m told these particular teachers of the year are not in all instances selected by formal committees, weighing resumes and degrees and accolades already accumulated. Nothing inherently wrong with that method of selection -- indeed, that's how my wife came to be a teacher of the year.


But the teachers here today were picked using what I believe are even better criteria -- the concern they exhibit and the bonds they build with their students. These folks are rubber meeting the road.


Degrees and certifications are not insignificant, but consider what they signify. They speak to YOUR level of knowledge. They DO NOT speak your ability to make others knowledgeable, and they certainly don't speak to your ability to inspire curiosity.


Consider what a wonderful talent that is: By helping others tap their own curiosity, you ensure your students continue learning long after they leave your classroom. In fact, you make it possible for them to teach themselves things even their instructors do not know.


That, to me, is the essence of education. The very definition of an educator.


Yet, ohhhhhh, how we do love our credentials. I’m as guilty as anyone. When Bob DeValentino asked me for a bio to read to you folks this morning, I listed awards I’ve won. I guess I thought that would make you think I’m smart. That I’m accomplished. That you should SHUT UP AND LISTEN WHEN I SPEAK.


But when credentials supersede the intellectual development of students as a measure of the educator, we’re essentially attempting to win a debate by shouting the loudest. This tack prevails too often in academia -- in hiring teachers, in paying teachers, in awarding tenure.


My step-daughter currently lives in Hawaii, where she is contracted by a community college as a professor’s assistant. She has an undergraduate degree in anthropology and a masters in environmental science. Her passion is agriculture -- sustainability, organic farming, things of that nature. She worked part-time at farms on John's Island while she was in school at the College of Charleston, and for more than a year, she has helped students in Hawaii manage a college-owned farm.


The college recently decided to make this a staff position, instead of a contract position. This is good news. It means Ande will be eligible for health insurance and other benefits, but of course, she has to reapply for the post.  She told her mother and me last week that although she expects to get the job, the decision is being delayed while the interview panel decides whether her environmental science degree qualifies her for the position. ... The position she's already filled for more than a year.


I don't know nearly enough about agriculture to say whether my step-daughter is the best candidate for this job. Perhaps she is not. However, it seems to me she already has a body of work by which she could be judged. Yet, the brain trust is fixated on the credential.


I suppose this at least explains the logic behind a phenomena my wife witnesses near the end of every grading period and that I'm sure educators here do, as well: Grade grubbing. And I'm not talking about those students on the borderline of passing or failing, of graduating or repeating. I'm talking about our best and brightest, and their parents. The battle for the point separating a B from an A can be epic. Invariably, my wife is besieged by students seeking extra credit. Permission to retake a test. Or to rewrite a paper.


Seldom is she asked, "What can I do to strengthen my grasp of the subject matter." More often, it’s: “What can I do to earn a better grade?” The focus is on the credential, not mastery. The focus is misplaced, I would submit.


I've been in the newspaper business for more than two decades, 17 of them as a manager. I've hired dozens of reporters and editors. I DO pay attention to the school a candidate attended, and I DO want to know if they’ve won industry awards. Those things can break ties between quality candidates. But I’m much more interested in a candidate’s body of work. I want people who know how to produce content, and more importantly, I want people who strive to get better at their jobs because times and industries change.


In short, I want flexible, adaptable employees -- critical thinkers with curious minds. 


I'm not in the market for stenographers to dutifully record government meetings. I want a reporter who is curious why pot holes in one neighborhood always seem to get filled, while potholes in another neighborhood seem to get bigger and bigger, until we lose a fleet of Volkswagens.


I'm not looking for a photographer to take a few frames from a check presentation that looks like a hundred other check presentations in the past six months. (We call those grip-and-grins, by the way.) I want a photographer who captures the human face of the person who will be helped by a charitable donation. Those are the images that resonate with readers. That’s what helps tell the stories that encourage people to give again. That is what makes the numbers on the check even larger at the next presentation.


I had the good fortune to long ago realize that telling these stories is my calling. When I was a sophomore at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, I took an introductory journalism class from a man named David Knight. He made us read "All the President's Men," which is the journalism equivalent to listening to Sandstorm before kickoff. Kinda gets you pumped up. He was this scarecrow-skinny fellow, with wide eyes and the perpetual gap-tooth grin of someone already giggling at the punchline of the joke he is about to tell you.


But he could be just a little bit mean.


David Knight sent us out into the school a couple of times each week to retrieve news stories about the drama club or the basketball team or the lunch menu. Then, he'd grade our articles. But before handing them back, he plopped our papers on this big overhead projector -- this was in the days before Promethean boards. He rolled that projector around on a big, metal cart. He'd pull down the movie screen, flip off the lights, then mount that cart and ride it like a hobby horse. And he would flog that overhead with his imaginary whip, harder and more frantically with every mistake he noticed. Using humor like a pair of spurs, David Knight jabbed us in the loins for every misplaced modifier, every comma splice, every split infinitive. God help you if you got a fact wrong.


Sounds terribly denigrating, doesn't it?


Granted, it wasn't for everybody. I think I'm the only member of that journalism class who is actually a journalist today. But David Knight's lessons continue to resonate with me. In this business, you make all of your errors publicly. And if you couldn't stand up to the good-natured flogging from that projector cart, you don’t have a prayer answering the newsroom phone the morning after the mayor's name is misspelled or the wrong crossword puzzle results are published.


Those articles often bled David Knight’s red ink. But you know what? ... There were no grades at the top. Just the proofreader marks. Our focus wasn't on the grade because David Knight's focus wasn't on the grade. It was on learning, and on improving.


And if you sought help, David Knight's car was in that school parking lot long after dark most nights, even though he lived an hour away in Lancaster. He would sit with you to hone and polish your work -- and avoid that flogging the next day. All you had to do is ask.


From David Knight’s class forward, I’ve devoted a whole lot of time trying to get better at my vocation, trying to let my curiosity guide me to good stories, trying not to get too puffed up by awards or too deflated when I feel I’m not measuring up.


David Knight taught me to think that way. So did Fitz McAden. So did a lot of other excellent teachers -- whether that was their formal title or not – who have much in common with these educators.


So as we recognize these 15 teachers today, let's thank them not only for the knowledge they've already imparted, but for all the learning still to come as a result of the curiosity they inspire.


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