Browns Grove, Kentucky had its own village blacksmith. Instead of some swarthy dude with big burly arms and thick moustache, we had Alvie Farris. He was in his sixties when I moved there. Short and thin and a bit hollowed by years of hard work and a touch of emphysema, Mister Alvie could nonetheless manage to shape or repair pretty much whatever was needed. Even if he had to make it from scratch or scrap.
I loved to watch him work between the forge and anvil. He’d lay the steel into the glowing coals, wind the crank of the bellows until the metal took on the color of summer sunrise. Holding the hammer in one hand and tongs in the other, he’d turn and tilt the workpiece against the anvil, swing the three-pound force of tempered steel. Blow by blow, clang by clang, the slightly softened mass took form. Whether repairing some piece of farm implement or making tobacco knives for the harvest, Mister Alvie shaped with his hands what was needed by his neighbors. I marveled at the way he could bend and fashion a strip of metal, admired the skill and surprising strength of arms that seemed so frail.
There’s a pleasure in watching the work of someone skilled at their trade. The smooth swing and push that lifts a hay bale off the ground and onto the growing stack of the wagon. The endless motion of hands knitting yarn into a scarf. The nimble flashing of fingers fretting a mandolin and picking an Appalachian dance tune. Even something as simple as hanging laundry with graceful motion. In such things as these I find a pleasing efficiency, a fluency so infused into the doing that one could easily overlook the years of practice and the true degree of the skill involved.
Every now and then I get to see something like that in classroom. Yesterday was one of those times.
For nearly ninety minutes, I watched a veteran teacher move seamlessly from one segment to another. From the opening welcome to the closing “Now next time…” she modeled a variety of teaching behaviors with such dexterity that they seemed effortless. Asking questions, giving directions, checking understanding, making suggestions, reviewing information, shaping performance. While the students worked on their projects, she moved around the room, spending time with each one, reacting to their humor and sharing her own. All of the unspoken cues of body language, facial expression and proximity clearly conveyed an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. There was nothing grandiose or staged about any of it and yet everything about it was immediately impressive to anyone with a solid understanding of effective teaching skills and positive learning environment.
I wanted to stand and applaud.
In teaching—like a lot of other things—some of the differences between good and great are simple and subtle. Calling on non-volunteers instead of the eager beavers whose hands shoot up after every question. Using probing questions instead of pure recall to stimulate critical thinking. Building drill and review into the lesson. Fast paced questions that help anchor information into memory. Checking for understanding before students begin the next task. Greeting students by name as they enter the room and as they leave.
A lot of things go into being a great teacher, into being a master of one’s craft. One of the key ones is caring and another is the relentless pursuit of excellence. Whether one is standing in front of a classroom full of computers or beside the weathered planks of an old shop in a place too small to be called a town.