On television, we see a snazzy, self-confident professional, but Tim Gunn, like the rest of us, went through many trials to become who he is today. In a recent NPR article and podcast, Tim relates how he had to overcome a debilitating stutter and a paralyzing fear of the classroom before ever realizing his identity as a teacher.
If you haven't seen an episode of Project Runway, you’re missing out on not only great entertainment, but also some moments of master mentoring in action! You can still catch episodes of the latest competition (Season 15) on-demand. Even better, you can discover Tim’s take on teaching and mentoring for yourself in Tim Gunn: The Natty Professor; A Master Class on Mentoring, Motivating, and Making It Work.
According to Tim, good teaching can be determined by five qualities, which he has taken to calling his T.E.A.C.H. philosophy. In brief:
- T is for Truth Telling. According to Tim, “a key role of the teacher is to inject reality into situations.”
- E is for Empathy. Along with helping students see reality, we need to discover their individual strengths and limits. “Not everyone has the same toolkit, and so not everyone is going to make the same kind of work. It's only by paying close attention to whom the students are and putting yourself in their shoes that you can truly help them.”
- A is for Asking. Tim admits, “The single best teaching trick I ever learned was to turn every question back on the student.”
- C is for Cheerleading. “In the Project Runway workroom, I tell designers to “Make it work…” and I point out areas in which they are strong.”
- H is for Hoping for the Best. “One of the hardest things for a teacher is to know when to keep quiet and when to let go... We need to have faith that we have done all we can, and then we need to kick our birds out of the nest.”
As a teacher of 25+ years, I continue to seek out methods and motivation to improve my craft, and this book is a satisfying hybrid of both conventional and unconventional schools of thought on the art and science of teaching. Until you get your own copy, here are some of Tim’s thoughts on topics that continue to challenge us all.
Tim Gunn On Good Teaching:
My goal for this book is to start a national conversation about teaching. We talk all the time about the administration of education - test scores and Common Core, classroom size and teachers’ unions - but what we don't talk about nearly enough is the single most important aspect of teaching, the key to determining whether knowledge is actually transmitted: the relationship between teacher and student. There's content and then there's methodology. The content will change, but good teaching is eternal. (p. xi)On the Importance of Knowing Your Students:
My view is that good teaching is all about asking questions driven by curiosity. It's about connecting with your students, not only as student but as fellow human beings. In order to give helpful and responsible instruction, you need context - as much information as you can elicit. If you don't know your students, how can you be sure that what you say will be meaningful for them?On Having All the Answers:
I will add that asking questions of my class removed the sense of obligation I felt early in my teaching career to have all the answers on the first day. I realized over time that it was a journey we were on together. It wasn't up to me to do all the work. I came to realize that a class is a collaboration, as is life! (p. xii)On “Teaching Malpractice:”
Shouldn't there be an educational equivalent of the Hippocratic oath? Breaching the oath would hold you accountable for your behavior, as it would with an M.D. Teachers who save us from ignorance should be given the glory (and income!) of open heart surgeons. And yet, being such an unhappy student made me that much more grateful for those teachers who treated me with kindness and respect, or who showed me that I had value. (p. xiv)On First Impressions:
One thing I learned in the course of my teaching career was to never judge anyone on that first day. When I started out, I was smug about having the students’ characters all figured out at first glance… But students often - I would say, usually - surprise you. As a young teacher, I misjudged so often that ultimately I stop judging all together. (p. 7)On the Value of Experience:
There's no substitute for experience. I have the greatest respect for new teachers - their enthusiasm, their eagerness to have a great relationship with their students and to help them learn. At the same time, veteran teachers are great beneficiaries of trial-and-error. Mistakes are so valuable, providing you learn from them. One of the worst things for a teacher is to be stubborn and rigid. (p. 8)On High Expectations for Students:
When I began teaching, I erred on being overly kind and generous in my assessment of the students’ work. I realized by midterm that it wasn't doing them any favors. What I was really doing was lowering the bar of my expectation to where the students actually were. The trouble with that is, they'll stay there. If the teacher’s expectations are higher than what the students can achieve, they'll keep pushing themselves. It's like running a marathon alone: You can't gauge where you are and so, as I became a more seasoned teacher, I resolved to keep the bar higher. (p. 8)On Teaching Versus Mentoring:
Teachers and mentors have a common goal: they help students grow into the people they are meant to be. And yet there is a significant difference between being a mentor and being a teacher. As a teacher, I could tell my students what I wanted them to do. As a mentor, that's inappropriate. That's the divide for me. Mentors help their mentees achieve a vision, whatever that vision is. Teachers guide their students toward certain things. Learning to be a mentor after twenty-nine years of being a teacher wasn't a snap for me the way some people assumed it would be. There was a learning curve. (p. 13)On the Role of the Mentor:
The problem with doing the work for your mentees, or your students, is that they don't learn, yes, but also that you steamroll over their eccentricities when you should be helping them be seen. It's your job to encourage each person's uniqueness, not stamp it out. No two people need the exact same thing from you as a mentor. (p. 15)
I never tell the Project Runway designers what fabric that should have chosen, or what they should have done with the past three hours, any more than I would tell them that they should be taller. You have to meet people where they are. The questions to keep in the forefront are: What skills do you have? What materials do you have on hand? What's the best thing you can do with them? It's my job to help the designers ask themselves those questions and come up with answers that help them along. (p. 26)On Creating a Healthy Classroom Environment:
A warning sign to me was when I could hear teachers shouting. If you're shouting, you're in trouble. You hold the power in your two hands. If you have any moment of disbelief about that, who is giving them a grade? You are. You're in charge. You have all the power. There is no reason to raise your voice. You can be angry. You can express disappointment. But never yell. (p. 45)On Grading and Ranking:
Grading is an important aspect of our job as truth tellers. At colleges, there are often attempts at extortion around grading, such as: “We don't want him to lose his financial aid!” I have no patience for that stuff, at all. I believe testing is democratizing… It’s not a matter of the federal government handing down a syllabus and curriculum. Does anyone feel that education in this nation is adequate? I certainly don't. If we don't have some benchmarks for proficiency, how do we know how well we are really educating people? We've been operating with a blind trust that this is as good as it gets. Well, it's not good enough.
There's something to be said for rankings. As a competitive swimmer, the first time I came in third instead of fourth, fifth, or last was very motivating to me. Later, I came in second, and eventually one day I came in first. If you work hard, you can achieve practically anything. (p. 66)On Empathy:
Empathy is the capacity to understand what other people are experiencing. It's essentially the golden rule: showing others respect and trying to put yourself in their shoes. In our interactions with others, we should always be asking ourselves: "How would I react if someone said or did this to me?" Most teachers of small children are excellent at empathy, and are constantly signaling their role as safe haven, like human lighthouses. (p. 75)On Giving In to Harassment:
In all areas of life, high maintenance people make me crazy, and I avoid them whenever I can. In my world, the squeaky wheel does not get the grease. People who give into that harassment have only themselves to blame. It's harder in the short-term, but so much easier in the long term.
Sensitive people often talk about how other people are "triggering" them. Well, someone told me recently that my hairline is receding and I'm getting a bald spot. I didn't mind. It's true! It's a matter of fact rather than their being mean. Being mean, in my view, is teasing someone in a manner calculated to call a shame, or acting hateful because of something they can't change. But stating a fact like “Natalia, your inability to make decisions is causing a problem for us,” is not mean. That's just truth telling. (p. 94)On Asking Questions:
Socrates figured it out thousands of years ago. Generally speaking, the best teachers are the one to ask their students the most questions. We need to make our students think. We are not mother bird dropping worms into their mouths. We are there to prod them into realizing things on their own.
There is such thing as being overprepared for a class. You don't want to come in with all the answers. You want to make your students work. You're a guide. You're a mentor and a leader. You're not Google. I confessed to young people when I don't know the answer to something, and sometimes even when I do but want them to find out for themselves: “That’s a good question. Go find out.” (p. 131)On Being Fully Present:
A chemistry professor wrote to me online and said that he's always believed teaching requires one thing above all others: full human presence. “One cannot pretend that the only thing that matters is the content,” he said. “If you do that you look like an idiot. Instead, one must acknowledge that teaching and learning are both deeply human endeavors that require a lot of mistakes to get right. You have to acknowledge that your students may not want to grow up to be you, and you need to support them in that.” Hear, hear. (p. 138)On Bad Teachers:
Sometimes... bad experiences can be catalysts. You fight against it. "I won't let that be true!" I have friends who say that teachers - or bosses or in particularly tragic examples, parents, - telling them they were no good was what propelled them on to greatness. I appreciate the value of a good revenge fantasy. I had plenty of naysayers in my academic career. … They did motivate me to prove them wrong… And yet, I don't recommend trying to crush someone's dream as a good teaching strategy. For every student you push forward, how many would you scare away from the field forever?
It's funny, though: I remember teachers were nurturing and inviting and engaging. And then I remember teachers who were hugely off-putting and insulting, and then there are all those ones in between my don't remember at all. And I wonder, is it possible those nameless, faceless teachers who never made any impression at all despite our many months together are in fact the worst ones? (154)On Differentiated Learning:
I look to students to determine what each needs in order to feel inspiration. As a teacher, I found that the best and worst student in the class were always the two most difficult groups to teach. The middle was easy. The toughest students for me were the ones who were either way ahead of the pack or who were trailing behind. But that's the challenge: to spend each day modulating lessons so that each group moves forward - helping those who are a bit behind catch up, and those who are ahead get even more ahead. (p. 166)
When I studied classical piano, which I did for twelve years, my heroes were Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and Van Cliburn. They could play the same piece so differently, even with sheet music. That's one of the most amazing things about teaching: when you see each student bring their own soul to an assignment, you see twenty different right answers. (p. 168)On Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
One of our most important jobs as teachers is to support our students in whatever it is they want to do, even if it's not what we would do ourselves. As soon as a student enters our class, we must do everything we can to support that student and to make him or her feel believed in and appreciated. It is so depressing when teachers badmouth their students. I always hated to hear complaints in the faculty lounge about how lazy or useless a group of students was.
I work with people who would say after the first day of class, "These students are really going to be great. These other ones are going to flop." I'd say, "Really? That could be a self-fulfilling prophecy." At some point, the burden is on you as a teacher. I similarly cringe when a person complains about how all the people he or she is dating are "terrible in bed." Really? What's the common denominator among all the students and all those dates? You. Maybe you need to take some responsibility for your own experience of those other people. (p. 189)On Letting Go:
I'd like to talk about how to let go. It can be the hardest thing in the world. Designers don't want to declare a garment done. Parents don't want their kids to leave home. mentors don't want to admit that the ultimate outcome is out of their hands, that they've done all they can and have to cross their fingers and hope it will all work out well for this person and home they've invested so much time and energy. The people we teach become repositories for our fondest hopes. And it can be hard to watch them stroll off into an uncertain future. The last thing I do in a critique is to tell the designer or student, "You're free now! Good luck!" (p. 223)On Consistency:
One thing I find extremely important in teaching is consistency. If the paper is due on Friday, the paper is due on Friday. We need to be very explicit about what is and isn't grounds for postponing a deadline… . Any solution is fine so long as it's been arranged in advance and does not change randomly.
One easy way to infuriate a student who's worked hard to get something in on time is to then say to other students that it doesn't matter and turning it in the following week is fine. You can have almost any rules you want, but leaving deadlines and boundaries fuzzy is a recipe for disaster. Not to mention, that's not how the real world works, so what fantasy world are you preparing your students for if you don't enforce limits? (p. 226)Hear, hear.
Thanks, Tim, for your inspiration to so many.