Winter 1998
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TCU Magazine "Capturing Budapest"

Staying after

By David Van Meter

SCHOOL OF EDUCATION Associate Professor Sherrie Reynolds has a double rainbow in her Bailey Building office.

It's just a snapshot, actually, yet blown up and framed and worth a million words. Reynolds was vacationing with friends in Crested Butte, Colo., when a sudden rainstorm struck.

While her friends ran for cover, Reynolds ran for her camera. There's a deeper meaning in there somewhere.

You've got to walk through life's rain in order to find its rainbows.

An hour-long conversation with the articulate Reynolds uncovers all kinds of lessons like that. Figures.

She is, after all, an educator.

Still, one thought in particular moves to the head of the class. The best teachers don't teach. They just let students learn.

Q. Teacher. Researcher. And now, chair of the Faculty Senate. You're so busy, what possessed you to run?

A. I ran out of a deep sense of service -- and a deep belief that I would not be elected. I'm not at all political, but I almost demanded a recount. But now I'm doing it, because I did make the commitment. I figure, how bad can I screw up? Plus, it's a one-year deal, so if I do, it'll soon be over. Seriously, the University is about the only institution I still believe in, and the Faculty Senate is an important part of that.

Q. You also seem pretty passionate about teaching, or as you pointed out in a speech at the beginning of the academic year, "finding ways that students can learn." What's your secret?

A. That answer goes back a long way. Growing up in Phoenix, I was a tough, street-smart kid really. No one was coming up to me saying, "Hey there, why don't you go to college?" People basically wrote kids like that off, and I definitely had been.

Then this teacher in high school took a personal interest in me. She did things you can't do today, like letting me stay at her house when I didn't have a place to stay. And I in turn did things that from my value system at that time, were the right things to do. One day, she was missing a hubcap from her car, so I stole for her an assortment so that she could pick the one she liked. You can see I wasn't exactly college bound. She got me to take the National Merit Scholar exam, and then she showed me what my score was and said, "You could go to college and do well."

Q. Ah, your turning point.

A. No. The turning point came one day when she said to me, "You know, a lot of people think you couldn't make it in college, and they're probably right." She got in my face. So then I enrolled; I literally went to college on a dare.

I arrived on campus early to learn how things worked, so I wouldn't look like a freshman. I was clueless, and I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was not coed of the year. There was a student there, a senior, who lived in the dorm. The ironing boards were in the hallway, so she was captive there until her ironing was done. I would come talk to her because I didn't have any friends. There I am with my cigarettes rolled up in my sleeve talking to her about philosophy. We got to be friends and she dared me to do my best on a paper. "Pick one project, and don't let anybody see how hard you're trying, but do your best. So you can find out if you have what it takes."

Q. Did you pass the muster?

A. The project was on creativity, I can still remember what color the folder was that it was in.

The professor called me in and said, "I knew you could do this well, but I didn't think you would."

When I finished, it didn't matter how anyone reacted to it. It was so powerful for me just to do it. I never wanted to leave college after that. It was this entire world that you could learn about and know about. People were concerned about why I wasn't more concerned about getting out. I didn't want to get out, I just got in, into this whole world of thought. And even with my doctorate in psychology, I had many more hours than what was required to earn a PhD.

Q. Do you ever see those two mentors anymore?

A. I still talk to them today. In fact, when I was elected chair of the Faculty Senate, I called them. Of course, they gave me more advice, how to act right and with integrity. Here it is 20 years later, as if I don't know to do this, they're telling me what to do just in case I missed that part. They're great.

Q. OK, now that you've been at TCU for almost 15 years, you must have this teaching, er, learning, down to an art.

A . When I came to TCU, I came to a realization. My own professors taught me all sorts of things beyond the classroom, how often to go to the dentist to get my teeth checked, how many cookies to take at a formal tea. I thought, "I'm not teaching my students any of that stuff." Then a friend of mine said to me, "Look around you. TCU students don't need what you needed. Find out what they need that you have to give them."

I started watching my students, and I realized they had no idea of what it means to learn, what it means to really think.

Q. Can you teach someone like me to really think?

A. Probably not, but someone else, yes.

Q. Thank you.

A. I'm kidding. I give talks now about how we have separated academic and spontaneous knowledge, so much so that people can't reconnect them. They study science and take a test over principles, and then they can go back to life things. We have some goofy ideas about how people learn, so consequently, we have goofy ideas about how people should teach.

We do have solid evidence about how we learn, so how we teach ought to come out of that.

Q. How are you applying that in your education courses?

A. Well, for one thing, student teachers don't need to know about Piaget, they need to see through Piaget's eyes. They need to see children as Piaget saw them, and see in them what Piaget saw.

So what I started doing was taking them to schools and doing the experiments that Piaget did. Then I offer his explanation for what the students just experienced. Then it all comes from the right place, what they saw in the kids. It's the opposite of taking a theory and looking through it.

I've tinkered with this, and I've done some things that have failed miserably. I've learned to build in little tight "feedback loops" so I can constantly see where people are, what they're thinking, how they're doing in the form of assignments and free writing things. So I'm always getting this feedback so I can be fine tuning and not waiting until the semester is half-over to realize that the class is dead, too late.

Q. Going into elementary and junior high schools seems to be a trend throughout the School of Education.

A. A number of us have little, quiet projects that have nothing to do with research or some big grant, but because it's important. Our students, as a result, are extraordinarily well-prepared when they come out. But we can still do better. And we will.

Q. What's your big project?

A. I have a school, Carroll Peak Elementary, that's in a poor area of Fort Worth. I found that students there do really well in math, they're making A's, and then somewhere about the sixth grade, they start algebra and die. Now, it's not that they don't know algebra. It's that the algebra makes clear what they don't know about arithmetic.

So every Tuesday, we play games that involve math with fourth and fifth graders, but we don't say anything about math. At the end of the year last year, only one was still counting on her fingers. So we know what we are doing is working. Next year, we plan to work with fourth, fifth and sixth graders. And we're going to hang onto them all the way through high school. My secret plan is to then find a way for them to go to college.

Q. So, to say you enjoy what you're doing would be an understatement?

A. When I think about those teachers who changed my life, I can't imagine anything more important that you could be involved in. What if I could be saving someone's life? Well, that to me is not as important as helping people find meaning and to think for themselves.

Q. Can I have that rainbow picture on your wall?

A. Sorry, you'll have to stand in the rain with your own camera.

Q. I understand.

A. See, you're learning already.