Monday, May 07, 2012

Teachers Are Important

I think that teachers are important.

Of the influences that shape who and what we are, teachers are second only to parents in their capacity to subtly and dramatically impress, direct, incite, arouse, instigate, and persuade us. That is a bold statement, but a true one. (Upon greater reflection, I stand by that statement with one caveat: It is true from my perspective of having parents involved in my life, interested in me, and always willing to be full participants. In this world of dismissive parenting and parenting-by-proxy, perhaps I'm granting too much power to the class of disinterested parents. But teachers are still at the top.)

This is, like most everything powerful, both a good and bad thing. If you are lucky enough to have a good teacher - or so blessed as to have a great teacher - the benefits are incalculable. If you are unlucky enough to have a poor teacher - or so cursed as to have a terrible teacher - the costs are likewise hard to calculate.

I've had both.

When I think about the cast of people who, over the course of 40 plus years, have made a direct impact on my life, have changed the substance that makes me "me," teachers hold many of the top spots.

It is not so much the subjects taught by those teachers as it is the way they taught them that left a mark upon me. Enthusiasm for ideas, for learning, for knowledge. I've sat through classes with brilliant academics at the helm of a class who could not impart a single fact because of a complete lack of connexion with students. And I've been taught by teachers of decidedly ordinary knowledge but extraordinary personality who, if I close my eyes, are still present and alive in my mind after 30 years. It is true what Karl Menninger said, "What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches."

There are teachers whose subjects have been, by a great degree, lost to me with the passage of time. Oh, perhaps tidbits from high school civics survive somewhere in my brain, but most of the knowledge from that class has seeped away. But a statement made by the civics teacher - a true gem of wisdom - imparted with great feeling and caring is still with me. Fresh. "You don't have to memorize all the facts. You don't have to cram your head full with every date or name. But if you learn to be good at finding information, know where to look for it, that will serve you well."

And it has.

Along with the Chungs and Attlesons and Zubers, teachers who inspired me and filled me with a love of learning, there have been others who did the opposite. 

When I was seven I hated school. Really hated it. I would pretend to be sick. And when that wore thin, I willed myself to actually be sick. And I got sick. I had a teacher who would not let me write my name in cursive - which sounds silly, but it was the way she invalidated my worth for wanting that small thing that made the impact. She told me that I did math the wrong way - not that the solution was wrong, but the way I did it was wrong. She was very good at attacking each student. She had a thousand little ways of making me feel stupid and wrong. And, as my mother discovered when visiting the school to find out the reason behind all this kid-sick-at-home-business, a teacher who yelled. A lot. My mother could hear her yelling at the class from all the way down the hall. After that I continued my education elsewhere.

That bitter taste has always remained with me. A bad experience with education like that does not just fade; it lingers, tainting all other experiences you have. If you want me to not hear a word you say, to lose any interest I might have had with an idea, raise your voice. Yell at me. It is guaranteed to block any learning from my brain. It took a long time after that for me to open up to teachers, trust them. Fortunately I had a home that was filled with learning and knowledge. But what about kids that don't have that?

So why am I talking about a teacher I had when I was seven?

Having had both good and bad teachers, I am very aware and very sensitive to the personalities of my daughter's teachers. And we've been lucky. No, we've been blessed.

At seven years old, my daughter loves school. It is the complete antithesis of what I experienced at that age. For that I am thankful. My daughter is, in so very many ways, like me. The good and the bad. Quick to become interested, curious, sometimes-too-inquisitive, but also impatient, easily bored, and often unfocused. It takes a special teacher to make both sides of that coin positive. My daughter's teacher does just that.

I have watched the ways in which her teacher, Ms. Kelsey, interacts with my daughter and all the children in her care.  I'm impressed. I see the use of creative solutions for each student, tailored to fit them all. I cannot envision a scenario in which my daughter comes home in tears because her teacher would not let her write her name in cursive. She'd incorporate that desire into a lesson somehow. 

And that makes my heart smile.

She has a talent as a teacher and is able to exemplify K. Patricia Cross' wise words about teachers: "The task of the excellent teacher is to stimulate 'apparently ordinary' people to unusual effort. The tough problem is not in identifying winners: it is in making winners out of ordinary people."

On this Teacher Appreciation Week 2012 I want to thank all the teachers who have helped me create myself, pursue my dreams, and foster a love of knowing more. And I want to give a very special thank you to Ms. Kelsey. I hope you know how precious and valuable a thing it is to me to see the wonder, joy, and excitement in my daughter's eyes each and every school day.

Teachers are important.