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Rita Pierson is right when she says we can improve the learning culture in the classroom by improving teacher-student relationships. We all remember that teacher who nurtured us as students and inspired us to want to learn more. When we think back on the most influential teacher-student relationships, it might very well be with the charismatic, welcoming, and dedicated teacher that Pierson is. However, my biggest academic influence was less traditional.
Mr. John Gies was a retired CIA agent turned high school English teacher, and the hardest, most feared man in the school. He required we write papers weekly, assigned more reading than any other teacher and was strict about everything from class attendance to penalties for late assignments. He was tough and he was refreshing. His no-frills approach to teaching was no less effective than the most exuberant teacher.
Mr. Gies created teacher-student relationships through being an academic coach. He asked questions and held the space for me to come up with the answers -- even if I didn't know them yet. Gies encouraged me to think about probing questions and to come back later with some ideas, any ideas, for topics that would become papers. "I don't know," was not accepted.
As a skilled class facilitator, he would have thrived teaching in today's flipped classroom. He required we complete a tremendous amount of work reading and writing outside of class, and called on us in class to lead the discussion in much the same way that Adam Smith's theory of the invisible hand in the Wealth of Nations guided economic principles. He knew that we had the power to access our own knowledge. He was there to be a guide, and a tough one at that. I was thrilled to have someone who cared enough about students to challenge us in these basic ways.
In academic coaching, coaches help students deepen their learning, take responsibility for their actions, improve their effectiveness, and consciously create their outcomes in life. Academic coaches go beyond teaching a class in these ways:
-- Never let students off the hook.
-- Acknowledge strengths.
-- See individual students' strengths.
-- Set high expectations of success.
-- Use powerful question asking.
In Gies' class I learned to write and I got more "bad" grades in his class than I had in any of my other high school classes. These Cs -- and sometimes Ds -- were worth gold to me. Why? Because they taught me who I was and what I could do. In fact, I may have only earned a C+ in Gies' class, but it was likely the best grade I earned in high school because it showed me what I was capable of doing if I didn't quit. Quitting was also unacceptable.
Before taking his class my senior year, I didn't know who Machiavelli was, nor did I know Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, James Joyce or any of the other famous authors. But by the end of the semester, I knew these people, their ideas, and what I thought about them. Their ideas expanded my world and left me hungry for more. I knew that as much as I struggled to write about my own ideas, I was getting better at articulating my thoughts.
At the end of the seventies, there was no such thing as college prep classes. However, Gies led the best college prep class imaginable in the same way that any high school teacher today can as a rigorous, serious, demanding teacher-coach who is more interested in asking the questions than telling the answers.
Almost 35 years since Gies' class, I've written or co-authored more than 30 books. At a book signing at my hometown university, University of Arizona, a few years ago, a man showed up in a baseball hat. Within seconds, I recognized this man as John Gies and I had the opportunity to tell him how much he had impacted life. Without his class, I doubt I would have majored in English literature or published a single book. I was humbled to be in his presence and grateful that I got the opportunity to thank him. We made plans to put the old teacher crowd from my high school together on my next trip to town, which would be at Christmas. I was eager to plan such an event with some of my high school friends.
One month later, a got the call that Gies had passed away in his carport from a sudden aneurism in his retirement community of Green Valley near Tucson. I was sad that I wouldn't see this influential man again, but I will be forever grateful for his high expectations and the vision he held for each of us -- the belief that we could answer our own questions.
Like Rita Pierson's mother -- and one day Rita Pierson -- Mr. Gries leaves behind a priceless legacy. That is the power of an effective teacher-coach.
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