Picking Favorites

When I think about the teachers I’ve had, I first remember the ones who embarrassed me:

  • The fourth-grade teacher who caught me giving bunny ears to my best friend as we filed into the classroom and then caricatured me walking in giving bunny ears in front of the whole class as punishment.
  • The high school science teacher who punished boys by making them sit next to me.
  • The yoga instructor who warned the classmate who was going to spot me while I attempted a handstand, “Careful…she’s beyond clumsy” (which was true, but he could have said it in a gentler way).

This is strange, though, because I’ve actually had some really great teachers. My third-grade teacher introduced me to creative writing (“Remember, don’t exaggerate; describe the details.”) and let me stay inside during recess so I could read instead of navigating playground dramas. My eighth-grade English teacher once gave me a ride home so I wouldn’t have to brave the walk to the bus when a bunch of girls threatened to jump me after school because I wrote a short story about their ringleader.

Then there are my two favorite teachers, Mrs. Huettmann and Susan Carpenter, the first and last teachers I had during my years of formal schooling.

Mrs. Huettmann always gave our kindergarten class awesome crafts to do. My favorite was a large tissue-paper goldfish. She gave me extra work when she realized that I needed a challenge, and she went to bat for me and encouraged the principal to let me skip first grade. When the Navy moved us out of the area the following year, she gave me a copy of The Secret Garden, which I still have. (She also once gave a talk to the boys in our class about how they needed to pee in the toilet, not beside it, behind it, or on the walls. I’m not sure why I remember this so clearly, but clearly it made an impression on me.)

But none of this explains why I’ve kept in touch with her all of these years or why I make a point to visit her whenever we’re in California. The thing that really stands out about Mrs. Huettmann is how good I always felt when I was around her. Whether I’m six or thirty-six, she always gives me the impression that I’m important—to her, for sure, but also inherently important. I’m confident that, to Mrs. Huettmann, I have a place in the world; I’m worth listening to.

Susan Carpenter taught my undergraduate Senior Writing Seminar. Susan never romanticized being a writer. Writing wasn’t some magical, mysterious thing; it was work, and if we paid attention and put in the hours, our writing would get better and better. This is a message that I find increasingly encouraging as the years go by. Susan listened to her students, and she cared. She gave honest criticism with a gentle hand, and she helped me learn to give better criticism to my fellow writers. And she occasionally took me out for coffee and a talk when I was going through a particularly bad time (which I made worse by being so melodramatic about it, but she was kind enough not to point that out to me). I still value her opinion about my writing more highly than I value anyone else’s.

I don’t have any self-contained anecdotes about the great teachers I’ve had like I do about the less-than-great teachers. I think this is because the teachers who made the most positive impression on me didn’t do it by having one stellar interaction with me or giving one awesome lecture or one stand-out piece of advice. They made an impression through their consistent support and warm presence. They did it through their example, day after day after day.

This isn’t something I can wrap up in a blog-post-sized anecdote, but it’s what I try to emulate when I’m in a teacher role. It’s these teachers’ compassion and warmth that I strive to bring to the girls in my Girl Scout troop, the preschoolers for whom I lead activities, and my own children. I hope I’m succeeding at least a little bit.

This post submitted as part of the Remember the Time Blog Hop.

12 comments

  1. Ellery Davies · October 11, 2013

    Every one in awhile, along comes a child who seems to form opinions, or artistic output or theories & proofs, even though they have had almost no input. They defy your rule that one cannot form an opinion or create something new until they have absorbed information. We call such individuals prodigies.

    Prodigies as individuals that surprise us by achieving expertise or creativity at a very young age. But their inspiration is not bold in that it is unconventional—it is beyond the bounds of what surrounds them. That is, it is difficult to find any input capable of resulting in the observable, prodigious output!

    Mozart was such an individual. But even at three, he had a father in the business and classical training. (Pardon the pun). Jacob Barnett, a 15 year old theoretical physicist who has already graduated college and is now at the Canada’s prestigious Perimeter Institute, is a contemporary example. His parents know absolutely nothing about astronomy and physics, but they could definitely teach the experts a thing or two about raising an autistic savant.

    With or without the circumstances of his symptoms (or what I prefer to think of as his focus), somewhere along the line he must have observed or consumed the output of individuals that came before him or at least had a sliver of raw material upon which he could build. I cannot accept that a child comes up with the solution to unified field theory or the nature of dark matter without even hearing of the problem or considering past approaches. There must have been some input somewhere.

    …But, I digress.

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  2. Ellery Davies · October 5, 2013

    Hi CJ. What an amazing coincidence!

    The feature letter—and most other Letters-to-the-Editor—in today’s Weekend Wall Street Journal (pg A12) is “The Tough Teachers are the Ones That You Love And Revere”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304176904579112002210041642.html

    The letters are in response to the Sep 28 article, “Tough Teachers Get Results”
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304213904579095303368899132.html

    That original piece was written by the author of this book:
    “Strings Attached: One Tough Teacher and the Gift of Great Expectations,”

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    • CJ · October 5, 2013

      That “Tough Teachers Get Results” article is great! It outlines many of the reasons I embrace Classical Education for my kids. Part of the idea behind Classical Education is that you essentially learn things three times: first you memorize, then you analyze, then you form your own opinion and create your own stuff (these are the Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric stages that make up the Trivium). The idea is that you can’t form an opinion or create something new until you’ve analyzed, and you can’t analyze until you’ve absorbed information. The fastest and most effective way to absorb information is through memorization. It turns out, kids in the Grammar stage (~grades 1-4) are well suited to memorization. So, we focus on taking in as much information as we can during that stage. And I’m very much on the boat of avoiding “intelligence praise” and have been since I read the work of Alfie Kohn and Carol Dweck (the latter is cited in the article).

      While I agree with the author of the article that name-calling isn’t something I want my children’s teachers (or anyone) to do, there’s something to be said for helping children learn the discipline necessary to push through the (often boring and unpleasant) learning process and succeed at what’s important to them. Thank you for sharing these links, Ellery!

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  3. The Waiting · October 4, 2013

    I have also always appreciated teachers that managed to inspire me to write but did so by not sugar-coating it. Writing is never easy and it takes a tremendous amount of practice and failure to get even halfway decent at it, and it’s probably pretty easy to just paint a picture that’s all sunshine and lollipops to students who want to make it. Teachers who tell the truth are worth their weight in gold.

    Great post!

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    • CJ · October 4, 2013

      I’m not sure I believed her while I was in college—or rather, I think I thought the “writing is hard work” rule didn’t apply to me and that I would be able to get by and even excel without putting in the hours. But I really appreciated her honesty once I was able to accept it as truth. It makes it easier to stomach my mediocre writing if it’s just a necessary stop on the road to writing that’s really good (or at least slightly better than mediocre).

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  4. AreYouFinishedYet · October 4, 2013

    “They made an impression through their consistent support and warm presence. They did it through their example, day after day after day.” Perfect!!!! That is so spot-on. And just had to say a “What’s up” to a fellow Girl Scout leader 🙂

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    • CJ · October 4, 2013

      Ah! Another Girl Scout leader! I’m third generation, actually (maternal grandma, mom, now me). Mom made it look a lot easier than it is, but I’m having a good time.

      Thanks for the comment!

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      • AreYouFinishedYet · October 4, 2013

        I just took my girls on a hike today, and I’m wiped out. When I signed up for the gig, I was like, “Yeah, I can make sit upons. This is’ll be cool.” And then I realized how much work it can be. But you’re right…it’s fun!

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  5. Kim Lorimier · October 4, 2013

    Thanks for the reminder to be that great teacher that makes the difference, one child at a time.

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    • CJ · October 4, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, Kim! As a parent, I really enjoy seeing the interactions my children have with their great teachers and how these teachers are nurturing my kids’ enthusiasm and self-confidence. As you know, I’m willing to drive a fair distance for a great teacher.

      Like

  6. Ellery Davies · October 4, 2013

    In your opening paragraph, you offer three recollections of teachers who embarrassed you. Examples 2 and 3 are downright contemptible—even back in the day! I won’t go so far as to advocate for firing teachers like this, but they certainly ought to receive guidance, sensitivity training and ongoing monitoring.

    The reason that I hesitate to insist on more drastic career action, is because I am saddened by a system of P.C. rules and sensitivity training that prevents eclectic style, horse sense, and those quirky methods that actually work, when wielded in the right hands. I have benefited from school teachers who command the respect and very best efforts of all their students, in part, because they have mastered a mix of motivational methods, including non-traditional tools such as self-deprecating humor, a bit of shame and personal responsibility and even physical prodding.

    If I described the physical means used by my middle school gym coach or the psychological pressure exerted by my honors chemistry teacher in high school, I would risk having them dredged out of retirement on child abuse charges. But the truth is that although they pushed students hard and made fun of them (again, given very specific circumstances, and never to tear them down), these same students went on to appreciate the interaction and the positive, long-term effects on their self-esteem.

    I know. I am one of those students. Thank you Mr. Macintire and Count Cardulla!

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    • CJ · October 4, 2013

      It never really occurred to me to call for the resignation of the teachers whose methods were a little too harsh for my sensitive temperament. As a child, I just wanted to find a way out (I don’t think I even thought of teachers as being able to lose their jobs). As an adult, I think of them as human beings who were acting and reacting in the best way they knew how. Teachers of large classrooms of students have a tough row to hoe, and I would rather see them receive better guidance and support than to see them lose their jobs, at least as a first step. (I might, however, feel differently if my own children were in those situations.)

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