Daniel Gribble teaches AP World History and IB Theory of Knowledge at Riverwood International Charter School.
Q: What attracted you to teaching at first?
A: While my father has a picture of me at 4 years old in a tie and jacket, standing on a desk “teaching” his students, the first real awareness of my desire to teach history originated in Mr. St. Claire’s class in seventh grade. History had always been something that I enjoyed, but Mr. St. Claire made history come alive. I can remember the day that he kicked a double desk (you know, the kind that two students sit at with the cubbies underneath) to the back of the room — he had a flair for the theatric — and the shock that I felt. History came alive for me in the seventh grade.
About three years later, between my ninth and tenth grade years, that love for history blossomed into some very specific life goals as I decided the following: “I am going to go to college to major in history with the intent of teaching history. I am going to take enough math classes that I can get a job teaching math if one is not available in history right away. I want to be in a position to make history come alive for others the same way that it came alive for me.”
Over the course of the next several years, I realized that I was not simply choosing a career, but that I was committing to a vocation, or calling. In the time leading up to my initial employment with Fulton County Schools I realized that a part of that calling was deeper than simply making history come alive. My childhood had been pretty sheltered in many ways and I felt that perhaps the best way to understand, and ultimately be in a position to help others that were suffering, was to be in a public school with students from diverse backgrounds that were experiencing diverse challenges.
Q: Has the appeal changed?
A: I think that growing older, having a family of my own and living through personal and professional struggles have tempered the idealism that burned so brightly in the early years. But my desire is still very much the same. I have learned that a great percentage of the job is spent doing things (paperwork, sundry meetings, etc.) that often times seem so removed from my underlying goals, and in some cases are counterproductive to those goals. In spite of the frustration that creates, I believe that the great majority of the time I still wake up excited to come to work and hopeful that I will have the opportunity to make an impact in my students’ lives.
Q: What keeps you going year after year?
A: This is perhaps a little bit difficult to answer. The short answer would be faith. The author of the book of Hebrews in the Christian New Testament wrote that faith “is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things that are not yet seen.” In many ways I believe that this is where I am supposed to be — and the evidence of that is a completely irrational desire to come back even when it isn’t everything I hoped that it would be. Perhaps that is entirely too metaphysical. A more concrete answer would be that the relationships I have built with students, and over the course of many years now with families, are substantial and fulfilling. Seeing former students find success in college, graduate school, and the work force — these are all meaningful and fulfilling things.
Q: What do you think makes a great teacher?
A: I don’t think my answer will be very politically correct. In this day and age, the world of education is trying to redefine what a teacher is. Teachers are “facilitators” of student learning. But I guess that I’m old-school and still see a role for actual teaching.
I think great teachers have mastery of their content, exceptional communication skills, and the “it” factor. I would say “it” is charisma, but I believe there is more to it than that. While there is the constant push in the world of education to try to make education a science, there is something that great teachers have that allows them to pursue their craft as master artists.
A few years ago, when Race to the Top replaced No Child Left Behind, The Atlantic published an article entitled “What Makes a Teacher Great?” The point of the article was perhaps to make a case that one could scientifically define great teaching. It has been my experience that teachers with great pedagogy come and go, but great teachers stay and persevere both before and after the waves of educational buzzwords. Their greatness cannot be quantified into pedagogy, rather, it is the sum of the essence of all that they are.
Q: What do you want to see in your students?
A: This is easier. I want to see young people who are learning to think. I frequently tell them that I would rather they be passionately wrong than apathetically right. I want to see them develop a work ethic that transcends whatever level of ability they have. I want to see them make good decisions, and, when they make bad decisions, I want to see them care enough to make things right. I hope that some of them love history, but I want all of them to be excellent people.
Q: How do you engage your students?
A: It depends on the day, and the students. To some degree I would like to think that I allow the story of history to engage my students and that I play the role of storyteller to a degree. I also attempt to ask interesting questions and attempt to make connections with everyday life. Part of that process involves balancing serious questions with humor. For the students who perhaps find themselves not wishing to be engaged, I am willing to play the role of a common enemy. In many cases, their efforts to band together against a common enemy are a form of engagement, but don’t tell them that.
Q: Do you have a project or special program you use year after year?
A: I have a research project that I use in the spring that has served me very well. It allows the students to pursue interests that they have within the field while developing stronger research and writing skills. It is one of the things that many former students have indicated was a helpful and positive experience that built the skills necessary to be successful at college.
Q: Is there a “trick” that works to get students involved?
A: There are lots of tricks that can work to get students temporarily involved. I have silly titles for some of my lectures such as a lecture on trans-Saharan and Silk Road trade entitled “My Humps My Humps, My Lovely Camel Humps.” Sometimes I provide arguments that are really outrageous because they will typically respond to those. But, those things are just tricks and they only provide temporary levels of engagement. When I can help students see and understand how what they are learning connects to their future then they become genuinely engaged. Most of the time that realization has nothing to do with history, and everything to do with the process of learning.
Q: What do you hope your students will take away from your class?
A: If they walk away with a love for history, that would bring a smile to my face. But, what helps me sleep like a baby at night is the hope that they leave my class with a well-developed work ethic, a questioning and inquisitive mind, the self-discipline to manage a complex schedule by making decisions about priorities, and the ability to communicate well through writing and the spoken word. If they can do those things, I feel pretty successful.
Editor’s note: Through our “Exceptional Educator” series, Reporter Newspapers is showcasing the work of some outstanding teachers and administrators at our local schools. If you would like to recommend an Exceptional Educator, please email editor@ReporterNewspapers.net.