Learning and Development: The Wonderful World of Mr. Smelley

By Emerson Director, Learning and Development, Freddy Mitchell

Teacher in front of classroom of students

Nathan Smelley was one of my favorite teachers in school. (Yes that was really his name.) He taught Algebra 1 and 2. He stands out to me because his classes were always a blast. He delivered laughter (at his theatrics) and “aha” moments (albeit about algebra). As I started facilitating training programs, I recalled those times and tried to create a Smelley experience for my learners.

Mr. Smelley loved algebra but, more than that, he loved teaching. He loved watching his students’ eyes go wide at his antics and light up with new understanding. He would slap rulers on desks or make funny voices to illustrate his points. Not only did his methods wake us up, they said, “Pay attention - this is different!” Good facilitators use similar techniques with their adult learners. We walk around the room to address different people, use props, games, jokes, surprising images and metaphors – all to keep the room “alive.” What distinguishes facilitators from presenters is our ability to stimulate our audiences to learn. And, as adult learners get more sophisticated, we challenge ourselves to work harder to engage them. Mr. Smelley would do no less.

Another teacher of mine, Mr. Jones, taught English Literature (or should I say told us about English literature). He lectured his way through every class period. His monotone voice added to the misery. Most of us were drowsy within 10 minutes, but he didn’t seem to notice. The only way he knew to teach was to tell us what to think. In contrast, Mr. Smelley would constantly ask us “What do you think that means?” Or “What happens next?” When we struggled to answer you could see his intent on his face – he resisted giving us the answer; he wanted us to think. During my career, I have learned to use the Socratic method and open-ended questions to lead participants to learning. When we create moments of discovery, real change happens. Our learning programs have lasting impact because we have helped people create new pathways to the answer in their own brains. The content is no longer just in our training materials – it lives on in the minds of our learners.

I didn’t find algebra that hard. I actually loved it. But there were times that even Mr. Smelley couldn’t get us to “get it.” He would use his funny ways and tell compelling stories, but sometimes it wasn’t enough. In those cases, we would sense his brain working to find another way. Then we could almost see the light bulb illuminate over his head. Suddenly, he was excitedly passing out blank paper for us to draw on or grabbing two yardsticks to illustrate his point. He had modified his lesson plan on the spot. We training facilitators have our guides and agendas, but sometimes they don’t work like they should. Some of the best facilitators I know are those who can flex on their feet and find another path to the moment of discovery.

When we graduated, many of us said fond goodbyes to Mr. Smelley. He clearly made an impression on students like me, who learned much more from him than algebra.

Postscript: He told his classes that his wife’s name was Ima and her maiden name was Lemmon, so that made her Ima Lemmon Smelley. I am not sure it was true, but I remember it decades later. Classic Smelley.

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