08/29/2011 02:29 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2011

My Favorite Teachers, Part 2

This is part two of a four-part series. Read part one here.

2. John Holt

A great book can change one's life. I read John Holt's How Children Fail in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan library in 1977. No book has ever had a bigger impact on me. Holt was a genius. It made me think that I wanted to be a teacher at some point in my life. That came to pass seven years later, in the South Bronx, when I had created a program to teach entrepreneurship to low-income children. Holt's concepts and methods had an important influence on my practice, especially the importance of driving fear from the classroom. So many students fail because they are afraid to make errors because they will be ridiculed and judged.

Holt attended Harvard, became an elementary school teacher, and then attracted a great deal of attention in 1964, when he published How Children Fail. In his three groundbreaking works (the other two were How Children Learn and Escape from Childhood: The Rights and Needs of Children), he argued for a teaching methodology that was student-driven. Holt believed that children had an innate love of learning and could teach themselves almost anything. He argued that the job of the teacher was to be a guide, coach, and reference source.

When I came across Holt's book in Michigan, I was in my second year of MBA studies, but decided to add classes from the School of Education. Our professor asked us to go to the library to find and read any book on education, and that's how I found Holt -- totally by chance. I wrote half a dozen letters to him with comments and queries in regard to teaching and education. He returned each with a written answer next to the paragraph that contained the question.

I continued to follow his work and I subscribed to his newsletter. The first time we spoke it was on the phone, in 1979, shortly after he had published Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story. In that book, he writes about teaching himself the cello at the age of 56, partly to discover how people learn. I spoke about my learning issues with letters and colors and he told me of his own. We laughed about how hard it was to admit one's weaknesses. After that, I called him maybe once a year just to chat. He would always speak to me and the conversations were always stimulating. I remember that in 1983 I thanked him for his life's work. I have never forgotten what he said:

"Thank you, Steve. I have enjoyed getting to know you."

"But we've never met," I said.

"Yes we did. We exchanged ideas on teaching. How could we have been closer?"

This is part two of a four-part series. Read part three here.