Dr. S's Three Teaching Rules

January 06, 2016

Creativity, empathy and grit are often overlooked as requirements of a liberal arts education. They’re labeled non-cognitive skills, which university teachers may approach as academic concepts despite the fact that they seem to transcend collegiate studies. If our K-12 schools teach them, it’s usually done indirectly through sports, band and other extracurricular activities. Regardless, we need them more now than ever before. Ironically, one could easily pass a multiple-choice or essay test on creativity, empathy and grit; however, to truly pass muster on these concepts “ya gotta live ‘em.”

My teachers pegged me as creative in seventh grade. That year I had to enter a writing contest as part of an English assignment. While ruminating about a topic for days (maybe weeks), a recurring memory of being cut from a little league baseball team moved me to investigate major league baseball to see if there were any players who played in the BIGs, in spite of having asthma, which was a huge childhood hurdle for me. A little bit of research uncovered amazing MLB athletes like Monty Stratton, who pitched for the Chicago White Sox with a prosthetic right leg, and Pete Gray, who lost his arm in a childhood accident yet still played the outfield for the St. Louis Browns. The paper could have practically written itself, but perhaps the most creative part of my portion of the process was talking my mom into writing it for me, or rather helping me compose it. Regardless, my need to take a different slant, to try to surprise someone every day and to be creative has been a blessing and a curse ever since. Creativity expert Sir Kenneth Robinson contends in his Ted Talk that “…creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” However, being creative is hard work. Work at it.

When I was 14, my father died quite suddenly. It was awful. My mother was left with seven rambunctious children (one semi-adult, two young adolescents, one in the midst of puberty, two others on the cusp of puberty and a five-year-old). To top it off, it was the sixties, baby! Of course, I was totally oblivious to her situation, but with the help of my sometimes bright, yet more often ornery, brothers and sisters, we taught her grit, resilience, tenacity and perseverance. Actually, she modeled the power of GRIT for us. Her love and stick-to-it attitude has been an inspiration to me all of my life.

And I’ll never forget the first year that I took a group of Mount Union middle school majors to Charleston, South Carolina to teach at Rivers Middle School (RMS). As we drove to Charleston, we perfected lesson plans on conflict resolution and generated lots of enthusiastic and creative ideas. When we arrived at RMS and saw the eight-foot fence with razor wire, I’m betting that you could have heard our collective, “GULP!” back in Alliance. Was this fence designed to keep people out or to keep the children in? During the first class that my Mount Union students taught, a huge fight broke out in the back of the classroom and suddenly two Mount students were on the floor, fists flying – they broke it up, but not by using any of our conflict resolution theories. That spring break (and for many following spring breaks), groups of Mount Union students showed me the meaning of resilience. The teaching was always a struggle, but in the midst of calamity and disappointment, GRIT appears. I love teaching; it forces you to develop grit, which can be contagious – I caught it from my students. Keep at it.

Teaching has taught me a lot, and in my second year of teaching (1977), a fifth grader may have been one of my best teachers ever. Sarah was an absolutely adorable girl whose wide-open eyes complemented her curious spirit. One day, she came to me with a note, requesting that she be excused from school for an eye examination. Without thinking, I said to her, “Don’t worry when the doctor takes your eyes out to examine them in the lab, it doesn’t hurt too much.” She looked at me and burst into tears; realizing what I’d done, I erupted into tears too. After many apologies and then more tears, I realized that it was a necessity for me to learn how to walk in my students’ shoes. Perhaps one of the most important uses of our imaginations (creativity revisited) is to develop empathy for others. It’s imperative for the 21st century. Through empathy we share our suffering and joy. More importantly, empathy reduces others’ suffering and augments their joy. Try it.

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