The Nerd Knack.

I’ve talked about it before here, this idea of withitness that is truly hard to quantify when it comes to teaching, but I think it coincides nicely with the idea below.  Both Dr. Cleeves and “Frank” would be traditionally characterized as “nerds” both by physical appearance and society’s intellectual qualifications.  Kids react one of two ways to teachers of this ilk: embrace or terrorize.

Dr. Cleeves was wicked smart.  So smart, in fact, that he held several patents that he created during his time in the pharmaceutical industry, a bit of information he shared with us on the first day of microbiology in my Junior year of high school.

“Frank” was wicked smart too.  His collection of jarred specimens in formaldehyde gave his room a distinct Shelley-esque feeling as I sat raptured in both his Biology class as a sophomore, and Anatomy class as a senior.  That coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of tissues, organs and systems clearly matched the degrees that hung on the wall of his office.

Both men had obvious intelligence, and the paperwork to prove it.  One was a great teacher and had to fight off students trying to get a moment of his time during his prep periods.  The other didn’t make it past November before a student lit up a cigarette with her Bunsen burner.

What separated the two clearly knowledgeable men?  Simple.

The Nerd Knack.

Dr. Cleeves provided us with a wealth of content knowledge about the inner workings o single-celled and simple life forms and showed us proper procedures for working in a lab; however, we never knew him.  We never saw him as someone who was in it for us.  He loved science, he loved figuring things out, but he lacked the capacity to share that passion with us.  Soon enough, once the initial politeness of being in the presence of a learned person wore off, students were figuring out ways to disrupt his thought process away from nucleotides and towards the nonsense happening between the aisles.

“Frank,” played it entirely differently.  From the moment you walked in, your name changed to something associated with either what you did outside of school, a sibling that had gone through the school, or something he noticed about you.  How did he find this stuff out?  Because he cared to know who you were and where you came from.  Whereas Dr. Cleeves was literal in his definitions, “Frank” was descriptive and hyperbolic, often taking the time to find obscure images of things such as filarial worms, or onchocerciasis (all really, really nasty things that leave lasting impressions on adolescent minds).

One taught science, the other taught kids.  And we understood the difference right away.

11 thoughts on “The Nerd Knack.

  1. I think it is so important to first teach students and then teach the curriculum. Students want to know that you care about them as human beings and will respond all the more when they realize you care about THEM. I am a math teacher and I consider myself as a teacher of students, not a teacher of math. My goal is to get to know all of my students and treat them almost like a sports team, like family. It’s necessary to get to know everyone on an individual basis. It’s also imperative that, as a coach, all students learn the plays, if you will. In the classroom, all students need to master the material; all need to move forward and demonstrate progress. No student should be allowed to fail, as that’s not how a team works. Essentially, failure is not an option. If you simply teach the subject–and ignore the human aspect–you never really get to know the students and never get them to perform to their potential.

  2. You seem to have a lot of ideas. How are you making a difference? Do you currently teach? It’s easy to play ‘armchair quarterback’ and say how things “should be”.

    1. Hi Trish,

      Sorry it took me so long to reply–new job, new baby, crazy commute, etc. Oddly enough, you sound very much like my wife in that she is constantly reminding me not to live in my head and that the farther you are removed from working directly with kids, the less likely you are to make a sound educational decision. I’ve kept that in mind in every spot I’ve been in, in every decision I’ve made.

      Yes, I’ll speak a lot about how things “ought” to be, but I do this with the idea that I am daring myself to grab onto what I’m imagining and make it happen.

      Thanks for the response, and the pushback–it’s always welcome.

  3. It’s almost the opposite of not smiling before Christmas break, right?

    My follow-up question to the whole thing is wanting to see the roads Frank and Dr. Cleeves took to becoming teachers. Was the one’s success determined by who he was as a person or was there something in the training process that set him on the track to connecting with kids? At the same time, what led to the other’s failure? Was it something in who he was as a person or did it come from the scaffolding of his teacherly self?
    You got me thinking again.

    1. Trish, if anything, I feel like Higgins has a greater view of things. From his time in the classroom, to his days as a parent to his time working with teachers in his district, he has a sample from various stakeholder groups. This is to say nothing of the fact that he’s done his research.
      If you haven’t had a chance to meet and talk to him about teaching, I hope you do. I have, and I’m better for it.

  4. Zac,

    Great questions as per usual. I agree, especially in light of what the world seems wrapped in lately regarding who should teach, how we should run our schools, and what “good teaching” is. From what I remember, “Frank” was trained as a teacher, but some time ago when there were things as “teacher’s colleges,” and Dr. Cleaves had little or no training. He may have, but his background, from my perspective as a student, had been as a college professor at a research university.

    Of course in these situations, I tend to fall back on my own experience as a newbie teacher. I had no undergraduate training as a teacher, but rather found myself in front of a group of 40 kindergarten students in a PE class on my first day as a teacher in a parochial school (I also doubled as the 6-8 Language Arts teacher–quite a gig: scooters in the morning, gerunds in the afternoon). What made the difference was a man I worked for after my certification to teach in NJ came through. He was the building principal and he sat with me daily for two weeks at one point, taught beside me, created a new unit with me, and really gave me a risk-be-damned attitude when it came to working with kids and content.

    In short, there has to be some formative experience within the life of a teacher that creates this “nerd knack.”

  5. I have known Patrick for 3 years, he does “walk the walk”, and as a former VP and now current principal, I always appreciated the academic conversations we had.

  6. Well, we’ve established that Mr. Higgins has his ‘fans’ out there (Chris & Zac), but please give me examples of how he “walks the walk”. Sure, it’s great to have all sorts of insight and experience, but how are you using it to change lives? You(Mr. Higgins) may have ‘seen’ more than a 22 year old teacher fresh out of college but big ‘ego’ can get in the way of the message. Titles and a few “academic conversations” do not make you an authority. Knowing your audience and how your message is received is most important.
    I know I’m sounding curt, but I’ve encountered many people like you in my 20 year teaching career. How are you RESPECTFULLY connecting with your audience?

  7. I know that Patrick will take time to respond to this post, but I felt the need to respond as well. First off, I do not consider myself to be a “fan” of Patrick. What I do consider myself is someone who is a former colleague, and a friend of his on a personal and professional level. How have I seen him “walk the walk”, I can give you two examples, one is a professional development course that he taught entitled “Teaching, Different” two years ago, that I attended as a learner and collaborator, not just an administrator. The second would be through attending the BLC conference with him in 2008.
    Trish- take time to get to know him, he is an asset to education.

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