This week is national Teacher Appreciation Week. As an school administrator I take note of this week specifically because it serves as a great reminder to tell the teachers in my school how much I appreciate them, but it also prompts to think about the importance of teachers.
Yesterday I was reflecting back on my own teachers, trying to see how many of them I could remember. I can remember, by name, every teacher I had for every subject through sixth grade. For seventh through twelfth there a handful whose names I cannot remember (and in some cases even whose faces I cannot remember!). Like anyone else, I could tell stories of teachers that I loved, and teachers that I loathed. The first teacher I remember loving was Mrs. Irwin, my second grade teacher. I can remember a lot of things about my second grade year, from the layout of the classroom, to some of the spelling words I had, to how I somehow managed (with a little help from my mom) to plan a surprise birthday party for Mrs. Irwin, complete with cake, balloons, and a gift that the entire class contributed toward. I can still clearly remember playing “Around the World” with vocabulary words in second grade. I always did quite well, but for some reason that year I had a mental block on the word “head,” and every time Mrs. Irwin would flash that card I would say “heed.” It got to be a bit of a joke in the class, actually.
I could also tell stories of teachers I did not expect to like, but did. Ms. Nelson, my third grade teacher, was one of those. My elementary school had an open design, so there were no walls between classrooms. Their spaces were delineated by changes in carpet color and by shelves and cabinets on wheels that were arranged to provide semi-walls between classes. Thanks to this arrangement, though, I could hear Ms. Nelson quite often while I was in Mrs. Irwin’s class, and I thought Ms. Nelson was quite possible the meanest teacher in the school. Turns out I very much enjoyed her class, though, and she wasn’t mean at all so long as I did what I was supposed to do.
I had some wonderful teachers in middle school, high school, college and graduate school, too. I also had some that were not all that great. Or at least I didn’t think they were. Quite possibly some of those teachers were able to connect well with other students. The worst teacher I ever had is a no-brainer; my fourth grade teacher, hands down. In order to protect the guilty, though, she shall remain unnamed. But it was the teachers like Mrs. Irwin, Mr. Urbain (one my high school history teachers), Mr. Marty (one of my college professors, who had his doctorate but preferred to be addressed as Mr.) and Dr. Jones (one of my grad school professors) who immediately come to mind as the best teachers I ever had.
Why were they the best? For one or both of two reasons, I think. They took an interest in me as an individual, not just as a student, and they loved what they did. All of them were very knowledgeable in their field, but knowledge by itself is not enough. I have been through lectures given by teachers who were undoubtedly brilliant, but they had absolutely no personality, no enthusiasm, and/or no inclination of how to make whatever it was they were droning on about relevant to me or anyone else in the room. Great teachers connect with their students, get to know them, care about them and not just about their grades. They also teach their classes in a way that makes their students look forward to finding out what they will learn next.
It was not until college, in Mr. Marty’s classes, that I ever had a teacher give any indication that he desired to learn from his students, not just to have his students learn from him. That, too, is a mark of a great teacher. A great teacher is well aware of the fact that he does not know everything, and is not afraid to say so. He never stops learning. He learns because he enjoys learning, and he teaches because he enjoys sharing what he has learned with others, and helping them learn, too.
Great teachers also stretch their students. They take them outside of their comfort zones. They do not do it obnoxiously, and they do not put students on the spot and embarrass them, but they do help their students expand their horizons. Mr. Marty was really good at that, too. He had high expectations for each of his students, and he would not let them shy away from a challenging task or take the easy way out when he knew they could do more. He never did let up on me when he learned that I had taken the easiest math class the university had to offer to satisfy my math credit requirement. During one honors class, entitled “Lincoln at Gettysburg: Propositions of Equality,” Mr. Marty instructed us to bring to the next class a question about Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It could be any question, so long as it was something we thought it would be interesting to know about Lincoln and the speech. Well, truth be told, I did not put a lot of planning or forethought into the assignment. At the next class, we had to write our questions on a 3×5 card and turn them in to him. He then read them out loud to the class. Before doing so, though, he said that we were going to use the questions submitted as the topics for a research paper that we were to write. We could select from any of the questions submitted. At least that’s what he said. Then he came to my question: “Lincoln’s speech includes the line, ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.’ How, if at all, would Lincoln have changed his address if he knew that it would still be studied and quoted more than century later?” Guess what? After reading that, and commenting that it was a very interesting question, Mr. Marty looked and me and said that he was going to require me to write my paper on that question. Wow… I was less than thrilled. Quite frankly, I thought it was an interesting question for a parlor game discussion, but I could not imagine trying to actually answer it. And yet, I did manage to answer it. I got an A on the paper, too.
Great teachers also help their students find answers without necessarily giving them answers. Another of my college professors did this most memorably after TNT aired a movie called Andersonville, about the Confederate prison of that name that held Union POWs. I asked Dr. Summerhill one day if he had seen the movie, and he said he had seen some of it but had not watched it in its entirety. I said I had asked because I was curious as to the historical accuracy of the film. His response? “Why don’t you do some research on Andersonville and then you can tell me how accurate it was.” See, I had wanted the quick and easy answer, and he called me on it. So, I did. And three or four books later I had learned that movie actually did a respectable job of sticking to the facts. My mother used this approach, too, from as long ago as I can remember. “Mom,” I might ask, “how do you spell [whatever the word was I needed at the time]?” Her response? “Look it up.”
So I am grateful for the great teachers that I have had, and I have admiration and respect for every teacher who goes into teaching for the right reasons and does his or her best to provide an excellent education for the students in his or her class. If you happen to still be in touch with any of the great teachers you had, perhaps this would be a nice occasion to make a phone call, send an e-mail or drop a note letting them know how much you appreciate how they influenced your life. Next time I will talk more about teachers, and Christian school teachers specifically.