Monday, May 10, 2010

Day of the Teacher: Who Helped You Grow?

The way NCLB is set up, underachieving schools are blamed - instead of help, they get dismantled. Instead of recognition that the kids whose families don't have enough money will move more, be hungry sometimes, and have lots of other life events interfering with their learning, we get blame for the teachers who didn't bring their test scores up, and mass firings in Rhode Island, approved of by a Democratic president who won through slogans like Hope, and Change Is Possible. President Obama, that kind of blame is not helpful, and I want more change than I've seen so far! Your Race To the Top is in the same vein as NCLB, and the competition it fosters could be worse.

Meanwhile, May 12 is Day of the Teacher (according to Kelly Kovacic). I'd like to spread the message of respect and appreciation. I'm going to add my thanks to a few of my favorite teachers from long ago, and maybe you can too.

Thank you, Mr. West, for the first science class that really challenged me to think. I loved dissecting worms, starfish, frogs, fish, and all that. I learned from the world, instead of a book. (Now, 40 years later, I'm wondering if animal rights readers will be upset with me for unquestioningly loving that.) I was eager to take physiology and anatomy from you, where we got to dissect a cat, and our tests were lab practicals. I don't remember much detail, but I have images in my mind, even now, from your two college-level course I got to take in high school.

Thank you, Mr. Scalabrino, for your poetry lessons. You took us to the mall, a cemetery, and a bunch of other unusual writing locations.  You made us sit in the front hall to watch other students pass by. You taught me to observe details. I wrote my adolescent poems about tasting the morning, and all the senses anger reaches. When I started writing more mature poetry twenty years later, I took myself seriously in part because you had taken us seriously.

Thank you, Miss Purvins, for taking us to Western Michigan University, to see a Shakespeare play. Thank you for facilitating discussion in your class that challenged me to think. I still remember being amazed at that the level of discussion there, my first experience of real literary engagement.

Thank you to a philosophy T.A. in college whose name I don't remember. (Contemporary moral problems, around 1978, University of Michigan) You sat with me at Dominick's, and we recorded our conversation about euthanasia. That helped me write a much better paper. You also helped me work on editing those run-on sentences. (I haven't been completely cured, I know...) Now I'm working on a book. I wish I remembered your name!

Thank you, George Piranian. I wasn't quite ready for the rigor of your honors calculus class, and had to call you out on "every man should climb a mountain, and write a poem". (You responded gracefully, I believe.)  I worked 4 hours a night on those problems you gave us, and this time the challenge was sometimes too much. (I might just pull that notebook out, and show some of those problems to the boy I'm tutoring now.) I wasn't used to low grades, and came to you for help. You couldn't make that mountain easier to climb, but you let me know you were willing to walk alongside me.

Thank you, Robin Jacoby. Throughout high school, I thought history classes were about wars and presidents, and keeping track of dates and titles. In your Theories of Feminism course, I learned the history of feminism through source documents, and we discussed why things happened when they did, what it meant for women, and so much more. I learned that history was fascinating.

Thank you, Gisela Ahlbrandt and Kim Rescorla, for letting me know (once again) that I really do love math. U of M had convinced me that I didn't like it, and you two, my first teachers at Eastern Michigan University, got me over that delusion.  Gisela, your classes were the hardest classes I ever loved. Dr. Rescorla, when I took your course in Linear Algebra, I was so proud to be able to understand everything and ask questions that went a little beyond the text. My thanks to all the other great teachers I had at EMU, too. I wish I remembered everyone's names.

When I began teaching, I made a list of all my favorite teachers, to try to help me figure out what great teachers do. I noticed an interesting divide. The great male teachers I'd had were great performers, and the great female teachers I'd had were great facilitators. I wanted to be both. I'm still learning.

Dear Readers, would you all write about your favorite teachers sometime soon, and link to it here? Let's toot each other's horns.


  1. This is awesome!

    Big ups to:

    JUDY LAZARUS, grades 1-2, for making an anxious kid with a learning disability love school.

    Mary Dischino, grades 3-4, for putting me in my place when I needed it.

    Tan Klemmer and Toby Kaplan, grades 5-6, for teaching me how to write.

    Kathy Greeley, grade 7, for teaching me how to write fiction.

    Steve Barkin, grade 7-8, for letting me explore math in my own way, and 10 years later for the early mentorship when I became a teacher.

    I'm getting overwhelmed. Time to limit it to math teachers and teaching mentors:

    Bob Kelley and Peter Mili, grades 9-10, for loving math as much as I do and making sure I had a complete set of skills in your disciplines; and a decade later for the teaching-calculus mentorship.

    Igor Pak, college, for giving me my first problems I couldn't do.

    Steve Cohen and Eileen Shakespear, grad school, for the amazing classroom observation feedback and the combination of incisive thoughtfulness and warmth.

    Barney Brawer, when I was teaching full-time, for the most point-of-view altering mentorship I've ever gotten.

    and many more...

  2. what ben said! awesome post!
    teachers rock!

    johnson, groomer, adair,
    green, di baggio, kelly,
    friedlander, higgins,
    dowling, luginbill,
    strawn, peters, richardson,
    pettijohn, rattabaugh, and
    willhoit. to name but a few
    (all from public school days).

    signs of the endtimes:
    whenever i'd see a particularly
    interesting problem in the
    math-department tutoring
    center, i'd ask its presenter
    "who's your instructor?"
    (you're not supposed to call
    us "teachers" any more in
    college; it's a dirty word).
    somewhere around half
    the time, they wouldn't know.
    their own teacher's name.
    is that more sad?
    or more weird?


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