Friday, February 24, 2012

Great Teachers

Do you remember your favorite teacher? I remember mine. Ms. W was young, energetic, and with it. She taught high schoolers the glory of Beat Poetry and joked throughout her lessons. She made learning fun. But most importantly, she noticed when I was going through a rough patch and reached out to me by giving me a collection of existential writing--perfect for the young artist.

Accounts of favorite teachers are like this--the teacher either makes learning really engaging or does something special for the child. In return, the teacher is bathed in unconditional affection from the child, which is why many of us go into teaching.

But that's not the type of teacher I want to talk about. This is the type:

Mr. S was a funny looking older gentleman who taught my sixth grade class. He wore cardigan sweaters, looked like Mr. Rogers, and in retrospect, I think he was gay. All these characteristics could have combined to create perfect fodder for a bunch of 12 year olds to make fun of him, but somehow we never did. We went on with our day, our academics, and our personal dramas. We did not notice him because he treated everyone exactly the same, was fair, and kept a distance.

Mr. R was in charge of teaching every single ninth grader U.S. government, which would be an insurmountable task for some. None of us cared at all about the subject, none of us found it relevant to our lives, and he knew that. But he never tried to get us passionate about it, nor did he go easy on us or dumb down the curriculum. Nor did he complain to us that we weren't paying attention. What he did do was furiously work through all the content and make sure that all of us knew it, as if our lives depended on it. He had the misfortune of teaching a subject that students just weren't passionate about, and he did it beautifully.

Ms. X was an eleventh grade English teacher who was tight-lipped and boring. Her lectures seemed irrelevant to what I would ever need or use in my life. One day, she made us struggle through a task of digging out roots and prefixes in the dictionary, a challenge I remember well because it was so much harder than the things most teachers ask. My friend and I bitched and moaned through the assignment while we giggled about the new German student four rows over. I didn't realize until years later that this teacher had laid the foundation for morphemic analysis and had empowered me for life in my understanding of the English language. I learned how to use the dictionary right because of this teacher.

What these three great teachers have in common was that they never got to see the powerful effects they had on their students. They were not glamorous, and they didn't get fawned over. In fact, they were sometimes unliked. They had the intense discipline to treat each student exactly the same, and focus on lesson planning instead of being approved of. Students never appreciated them. This must have been a terribly lonely experience for them.

And yet this did not stop them from giving 100%. They had enough love in their hearts to be willing to be not loved back.

So while I will always love Ms. W and teachers like her, it's teachers like these that haunt me. Will they ever know what they have done? I hope they find out.


catherinet said...

Well said Ms. M! I know you are becoming one of these great teachers too!

Anonymous said...

I remember all of my elementary school teachers. Some were better than others, but I suspect the ones I remember best are the ones who loved and understood their subject, and liked and tried to understand their students. Yes, great teachers come in many forms!