Like those who have already posted, my best teachers were my toughest ones, the one who made us stretch our minds: Mrs. Bernsohn in 2nd grade, who had us create our own weekly class newspaper and put us fully in charge, was the teacher who told me that I was destined to be a writer. Ms. Simmons in 7th grade, had us reading and analyzing 1984 and Lord of the Flies—and with such guidance that we felt ready for the experience. The substitute teacher in English class the year our teacher had some sort of break down and was gone for months. That woman who replaced him—she could teach! We all adored her. We worked our 10th grade butts off to please her. And Mr. Markowitz, my World History teacher. That man brought history to life. And always saved the good disemboweling stories for the end of class, right before most of us tottered off, gagging a little, to lunch.
But here’s the thing: Until I was fortunate enough to make it into Northwestern University and have (mostly) professor after professor who just blew my mind in the best of ways and made me work for every grade point, every positive comment on essays, there weren’t many more in my earlier education. Some of the others were truly bad. Most were just okay. I’m sure I had a role in this: As a student I had a tendency to do very well in the subjects I loved (English, history, the humanities in general) and was rather lackluster in those I didn’t like. But I always wondered: If the teachers in those other subjects had been dynamic and crazy wonderful, wouldn’t I have cared more? I think I would have.
The good ones – they had two things: they knew their subject matter intimately—this in depth knowledge that came from passion and years of study and most likely from good teachers who had instructed them. And they knew how to make us feel a passion for it, too. Mr. Markowitz--he of the detailed torture stories—taught without a text book. He WAS the textbook. We took copious notes. We listened. We laughed, because sometimes in the face of the horrific things humans do to each other, you have only two options: tears or laughter. At age fifteen, laughter was easier most days. There would be time to cry later. He had this amazing memory and amazing capacity for both the big picture and the small human details. I knew I was learning about real people who were living their lives and were doing the entire range of human experience from the good to the bad to the terrible to the small and petty and the large and generous and everything in between.
The less good ones—they relied on the textbook and the teacher’s guides and worksheets and on endless days of grouping us together under the guise of being ‘facilitators of our independent learning,’ which sounds all educationally sound but is in the wrong hands simply a guise for lazy teaching. Because if I could learn it all from reading and watching film clips and talking to my group members, then why would I need a teacher? What would be the point?
Teachers don’t have to be martyrs to the cause. They don’t have to let the job consume them, ala Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers, although often the job does consume us simply because the workload is so great and the need of those we work with is so pressing.
I became a teacher myself for a number of years because of both the good and bad teachers I had. I hope I’m in the good category for some of the students who have come my way.
And in a related observation, did you ever notice how many movies (besides the ones mentioned above) there are about teachers and school?
Here’s an awesome clip from one of my favorites, The Paper Chase, to take you through the rest of this Sunday. Oh Professor Kingsfield. You are the best: