If you teach, you should watch Project Runway. If you teach and hate Project Runway, you should watch Project Runway. Fold some laundry. Here’s why.

Tim Gunn plays a benevolent mentor blessed with grandfather-gray hair and killer instincts. As one of the authorities on the show, he circles a room filled with long tables of fabric and converses with frenetic designers about making evening gowns, lined jackets, and couture skirts as good as they can be. No small feat, since some of the designers’ projects—created in small time frames and adhering to themes like stilts, neon lights, WWE wrestling, candy, and curvy models—are quite bad.

Gunn encourages designers one-on-one and as a whole group, saying “Get some sleep tonight!” or “Go, go, go!” or “I’m hopeful” or “This definitely has wow-factor potential” or “We are going to the runway, and we are going to have a fabulous show!” Cheesy, but effective. Tim Gunn—the Gun—kills with kindness.

In between the nicey-nice he asks questions that are never closed-ended or leading or mean. He knows as much as the clothes are the designers’ final products, the designers’ thought processes are his, so he asks carefully phrased questions that get contestants to rethink and revise… to look behind the seams and ground their ambitious designer aesthetics in worlds of actual work. He probes and listens, a method that seems/seams obviously good for utterly clear reasons but somehow eludes me always.

He reminds me what I forget in my classroom: techniques for whole-group and one-on-one conversations should go beyond teachers ranting in the front.

Where is this girl headed?

He loves that one. Note, he DIDN’T say, “This girl looks like she’s headed to a NASCAR race.” He can’t. Editors have to save the Mean Metaphor for judge Michael Kors. (“She literally looks like she got caught in a tornado of toilet paper!”) But even if Gunn could say something mean (and who knows what a man of restraint can really do), he wouldn’t; he’s not that kind of guy. He’s the kind of guy who writes heartbreaking essays about his father.

Gunn wants students to think deeply, so he angers them. He stumps them. Whatever his tactic or question, he keeps students’ best interests at heart while remaining eternally unflappable and calm. (There’s no need to hit anyone with a brick. Gunn scrunches his face and we know the dress is going to be ugly.)

Tim Gunn sips the whiskey slow.

He knows the teacher’s role in conversation is not just one of Devil’s Advocate, but one of attempted neutrality. When it comes to questioning my students while walking circles around the room, I want to be more like him.

(Derek Smith)


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