Campus Life

Inaugural Lecture: Don't Blame the Lettuce

Professor Tim Slocum at his Inaugural Professor Lecture. (photos courtesy Pinguino Kolb)

When Tim Slocum began working a part-time job at a school, he was passionate about social justice. He was doing political work in Seattle at the time.

His job at the school focused on children with learning disabilities. It was supposed to pay the bills, but over the course of two weeks, it changed everything.

“I saw that the difference between literacy and illiteracy was as profound as any of the political issues I was focused on,” he said. “It was a total life changer.”

Slocum, now a professor in the Special Education and Rehabilitation Department at Utah State University, spoke to friends, family and colleagues during his Inaugural Lecture. The event is a tradition for new professors, and it’s coordinated through the Provost’s Office. It takes place at the Utah State University President’s House.

During his presentation — and in a subsequent interview — his enthusiasm was infectious. His love for social justice lives on, but his passion is in preparing the next generation of special educators.

He wants his students to know that there’s more to being a good teacher than heart.

“It’s not enough to just care a lot,” he said. “The technical skills have to be there. … For some students, just typical instruction will result in them being illiterate, with lifelong consequences.”

Slocum draws inspiration from Tich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist.

“When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce,” Nhat Hanh said. “You look into the reasons it is not doing well. It may need more fertilizer, or more water or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems with our friends or our family, we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all.”

Students really like that quote, Slocum said. But he hopes that while they embrace Nhat Hanh’s words, they don’t forget technical skills they’ve been taught.

“Really excellent instruction can completely make the difference,” he said. “[Students with learning disabilities] can live life with all the opportunities and choices that everyone has. … But if we fail, the kids will grow up without opportunities.”

That can be an awful lot to expect from a prospective special educator. Slocum understands that burnout is a real danger when professionals take their work so seriously. So he gave this advice to students in his field, and to professionals who are already in it:

“You have to forgive yourself for not being perfect, and at the same time you have to learn from your failures,” he said. “Repeatedly connect with your passion. Never forget how important this work is. And because it’s so important, learn and implement the most effective practices. Implement them well, be technically excellent.”

Related links:

USU Department of Special Education and Rehabilitation

USU Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services

Contact:  Tim Slocum   tim.slocum@usu.edu

Writer:  JoLynne Lyon 435-797-1463

Guests at Slocum's lecture included friends, family and colleagues

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