The man has a way with words.
“He had the body of Orson Welles and the voice of James Earl Jones and the soul of St. Francis of Assisi. And if you know Kentucky Fried Chicken, he resembled Col. Sanders because he had prematurely white hair when he was 30,” said Dr. John Sexton of his former teacher, friend and mentor, Charles Winans.
Sexton, the president of New York University, spoke to the faculty of the West Morris Regional School district as part of two days of professional development around the Columbus Day holiday.
The assembly began with remarks and goal setting by district Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast, who swiftly turned over the podium and spotlight to Sexton, who had recently returned from speaking engagements at Oxford and in Paris before traveling to Mendham.
Sexton glossed over his accomplishments as president of NYU and Dean of the NYU School of Law, chairman of the Board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, chairman of the Federal Reserve System's Council of Chairs by telling the crowd they could Google about them to learn more.
Sexton was there to speak about the immeasurable effect of a teacher in a classroom and most markedly, Winans, the teacher that changed his life.
“Every innovation I have been given credit for stems from the question what would Charlie do?” Sexton said. “He had a phrase, ‘Boys, play another octave of the piano.'"
According to Sexton, the challenge was that if there is something you have not done, as long as it is legal and moral, you should do it once.
“And so it was my daughter and I stood on a boat in the North Pole and jumped into the water,” Sexton said. “Because it was legal and moral and I hadn’t done it. “
According to Sexton, Winans was utilizing a multidisciplinary curriculum before anyone even knew what it was.
“The Jesuits at Brooklyn Prep didn’t know what to do with Charlie. So we had a class that was just called ‘Charlie,'” Sexton said. “And he created in us this wonder of knowledge.”
To Sexton, continuing on with the work he saw Charlie doing everyday in his classroom is a true calling.
“The single most important thing in education is the teacher. The demanding teacher. The one who is demanding of self and demanding of students,” Sexton said. “The teacher that walks into the classroom and sets high expectations.”
According to Sexton, the most rewarding time in his life, if he had to choose, was working with teenagers in high school.
“If you have a privilege of having a classroom, you need to know what is the purpose of the moment,” Sexton said. “It's all about visualizing the end. For what are we preparing our students.”
Sexton said that being a good teacher takes time for self-reflection and challenged the staff at West Morris to sit down and think out if they are living a useful life.
“Students don’t fail. Teachers fail,” Sexton said. “And the first place we fail is by not setting expectations high enough for ourselves or for them.”
Sexton told those assembled that teaching needed to include broader concepts and stressed that students need education not in a narrow utilitarian sense but in a broad and deep sense.
“This country is moving toward a narrow ‘I’ shaped education and not a ‘T’ shape,” Sexton said. “Evidence is important but the most important things are not measured and can’t be measured. The most important things in our lives are not measurable. This is true of education. Of course we have to prepare our students with skills, that’s necessary but not sufficient. You can’t stop at the measurable."
Sexton reiterated to the faculty that their time with the teenagers was crucial.
“We have changed our notion of higher education. That makes it more utilitarian. If we’re going to turn that around we understand that with teenagers, especially in high school this is where they are formed for life,” Sexton said. “And that is our responsibility. We who control them as they are shaped.”