The most charismatic teacher in my department, Robert G., retired last year. I’m not sure he was ready to go, but his spouse got a great job outside of commuting distance. And as Robert said at the time, quoting an African proverb, “a change is as good as a rest.”
Robert started at my school in the 1990s — before my time there — and during his tenure won our Teacher-of-the-Year award and the well-earned admiration and affection of his colleagues and generations of students. He even turned a whole bunch of those students into college History majors, for better or worse.
I attended a belated retirement party for Robert over the Thanksgiving weekend. At his party, we told stories about Robert and he told stories about himself. That’s what we expected. Robert is a storyteller down to his bones. Among many others, Robert told a story about a post-observation debriefing early in our relationship as teacher and supervisor. In his telling, I had just watched him lecture on Andrew Jackson, whom he was particularly fond of imitating. That was one of Robert’s winning techniques: he didn’t just tell you stories about people. He *introduced* you to the actors in the stories he told. Students felt like they were in the room with people from the past.
In Robert’s version of the story, after the lesson observation, I told him that that was all well and good, but that his job wasn’t to tell great stories. It was to teach *students* how to tell great stories. In fact, Robert was wrong about what I said to him. My feedback came in the form of a story, one I’d recently heard on the radio. A teacher, highly regarded in his own school and district, told an interviewer about a student who approached him after he’d given what I imagine as a Robert-style lecture. “That was awesome, Mr. Teacher. When are you going to teach *us* how to do that?” I suppose it doesn’t matter much which version is true, mine or Robert’s — mine is, by the way — except that teaching with stories is almost always more effective than issuing directives.
Robert told that story — close enough to the truth — in a spirit of gratitude, which I deeply appreciate. It says a lot about him that a guy who was already secure in his job and quite confident in his abilities was willing to hear and accept a challenge to get even better. And so he did.
Robert never stopped telling stories in the classroom. But he also did new things, too. Once he discovered “Facetube,” a discovery he announced with much glee at a departmental lunch, he created a virtual soundtrack for his US History course. The parent of a student who learned the history of rock and roll from Robert spoke at his party, and said that her son had become a more serious student as a result. (Something that *real* could be *studied*?!?) Robert also became, more in imitation of his younger colleagues than in response to anything I said to him, much more “student centered.” His students worked in groups on documents and gave each other comments on essay drafts. They debated and presented.
Robert was also in on the ground floor of the 4QM. He was the first one to put up posters of the questions on the wall of his classroom. And as I’ve mentioned in this space and say frequently at workshops, Robert was the audacious soul who told his 9th graders to read about and then “4QM” the Crusades on their own. I remember coming into his classroom and seeing groups of them working on storyboards and dividing up questions to research.
Some teachers like the 4QM because it helps them to make planning decisions more rationally and efficiently. Others really like using storyboards in the classroom. Robert was a quick study and a long-time veteran. In any case, he was done worrying about curriculum planning by the time I met him. (His enormously strong narrative sense also made the task relatively straightforward for him. He always knew what story he wanted to tell.) He liked the storyboards well enough. What he really liked was getting students to think with categories. He liked seeing how sharp they felt when they were able to distinguish between a Question Two and a Question Three, say. And he liked challenging them to think that way.
Robert was also, for all his stories, an anthropologist at heart. He loved teaching anthropological concepts to students, and was the one 9th grade teacher who refused to relinquish the Neolithic Revolution and cede it to our middle school History colleagues. Robert needed to be the one to teach broad explanatory concepts like kinship and affinity and descent and, especially, race and culture. Last year we hired a new teacher who had studied with Robert as a 9th grader. Those culture and race lessons were among his most vivid memories of high school, and part of the reason he became a Social Studies teacher.
I think Robert saw in the 4QM that we were, in fact, naming and documenting what he did with apparently effortlessness: he told stories and trained students to think conceptually, with categorical clarity. Our documentation, and a little prodding, made it possible for him to see how he could include his students not just in his audience but also enlist them in the meaning-making enterprise as co-conspirators.
Robert taught me a bunch of things about teaching. Almost all of them have to do with fear. Robert had (and has) none, at least none related to the classroom. In pursuit of knowledge and understanding — and, for sure, a good story — there’s nothing Robert wouldn’t try. The fact is, I was a pretty good and Jon an unusually good teacher before we started figuring out the 4QM. The conversation that became the idea that became our consulting enterprise has also forced us to rethink and relearn what we thought we’d figured out. That’s been a hard process, though undoubtedly worth every calorie of effort and worry. Robert showed me how to learn as an adult with grace and humility. For that, I’ll always be in his debt.