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.

7 Replies to “Picking Favorites”

  1. 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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    1. 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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  2. “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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    1. 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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      1. 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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  3. Thanks for the reminder to be that great teacher that makes the difference, one child at a time.

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    1. 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.

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