Wednesday, October 08, 2008

All hail the teachers!

If there’s anything the Nerdy Set appreciates, it’s a good education. This past Sunday was World Teacher Day, and it got me thinking about how truly life-changing teachers can be. Let’s face it, as people who liked school, we probably also had a lot of teachers we admired. I know I did. From kindergarten through college, I was lucky enough to have far more great teachers than not-so-great teachers. And a number of them truly did change my future.

There was my fifth grade teacher who just looked at me with dismay the day I showed up to school with a novelization of “9 to 5” in my hands. (Don’t ask - I was a strange child.) She called me up to the front of the class during study hall and handed me a different book, saying, “What you read actually matters. Don’t read crap.” She may have used a different word than “crap” but that’s how I remember it. To this day, every time I’m in a bookstore, I hear her words. They simultaneously make me laugh and force me to steer clear of the chick-lit section as if it were on fire.

This teacher used to press us to try new things, too. I don’t know how many other fifth graders were learning Chinese just for the hell of it in the early 80s but we were. I used to wonder why we were bothering with a language we’d never be able to master and would likely soon forget, but years later, I thought, “Yeah, but why not?” It was my first venture into learning something just for the joy of discovery.

In high school, I had two pedagogical heroes. The first was my creative writing teacher who introduced me to contemporary literature after years of thinking that writers all wrote like Dickens or James – scads and scads of clauses, hundred page descriptions of biscuits. He opened my eyes, introducing our class to Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Flannery O’Connor and others. He taught us how to pull apart a story, examine it in all its disjointed glory and figure out how to put together our own narratives. He encouraged us and never made us feel like we were just high school kids making up stories. In his class, we were all serious writers doing serious work – he gave us dignity and in turn, that gave us drive.

My other hero was my Latin teacher. A true eccentric, this guy used to climb onto his desk and yell at us in Greek whenever we misbehaved…until we reminded him this was a Latin class. He made us laugh and incorporated every trick in the book to get us to learn. Believe it or not, playing Jeopardy with categories like “How Your Classmate Tiffany Relates To Rome” actually helped me understand the difference between accusative and ablative. (I just like to say the word “ablative.”) And I’ll never forget the day he got into a truly Dada-esque argument with a student over the correct pronunciation of the word “urbs,” which ended with both of them shouting it at each other as loud as they could until our chain-smoking teacher’s diminished lung capacity forced him to raise the white flag. For all the hijinks, he took learning seriously and he took us seriously. You never doubted for a second that this man cared about what he was teaching you and more importantly, cared about you as a person…even when you had pizzas sent to his class and shouted “urbs” at him. What more could any student ask?

Who were some of your favorite teachers? Let’s give them all a little recognition even if it’s just a shout-out in the blogosphere. Beats that tired ol’ apple on the desk thing...


Bakerloo said...

I've had a few truly wonderful teachers. My first favorite is Joan Cecil - my high school creative writing and gender studies teacher. She was remarkable - completely strange and totally stoic, but passionate at the same time. She was famous for yelling at high school boys who had the audacity to hold the door for her. She was the first person to teach me what a paradigm was and how to shift go about shifting your own. She also completely loved T.S. Eliot and made us disect The Wasteland in great detail, much to our dismay. She was good-natured enough to endure our disgust and never made fun of me for prefering e. e. cummings.

One of the best teachers I've ever encountered only taught me for about 10 minutes this summer when I went to clown school to learn about effects. Man, clown school. But the verve and excitement he brought to the classroom, his booming laugh, and his serious eyes all combined to make an electric experience.

My favorite teacher of all time is my mentor, Buzz McLaughlin. Buzz was my advisor in college and the playwrighting teacher on the theatre faculty. He had started the theatre department at Drew back in the day and only taught 2 classes - intro to playwrighting, which everyone was required to take, and advanced playwrighting, which was only offed every other year and Buzz hand-picked the participants. I could write a tome about the impact Buzz made on my life. Suffice it to say, he believed in me, made me work harder than I wanted to, and I consider him my second father. He taught me so many lessons about writing believable dialogue as well as making it in the theatre world...and more. My favorite moment was when I walked into Advanced for the millionth time in a row in ripped jeans, a crappy t-shirt and no makeup, still exhaling smoke from my pre-class cigarette and he yelled "JESUS CHRIST! WOULD IT KILL YOU TO WEAR A SKIRT ONCE IN A WHILE!?" Horrified, I blinked back at him. He then said, in a much calmer tone, "Don't you understand that no one will take you seriously if you give a shit about the way you look?" He had a point and I got right on that...three or four years later.

Bakerloo said...

erm, that should be "DON'T give a shit about the way you look."

Liz said...

Can I just say that I love the fact that you went to clown school?

Also, that's hilarious that your professor actually yelled about wearing a skirt. He had a point (and that's a lesson I STILL haven't learned) but it's just funny that he was so direct about it. I think I would like this guy.

Amanda said...

Hey bakerloo, this is quite a coincidence but I also had Joan Cecil when I was in high school. She taught British Literature and I absolutely loved her class because she purposely searched for women writers for us to read just for the diversity. And she let me do my final term paper on Tolkien, which was the only English paper that I ever actually cared about.

But my favorite teacher from high school would have to be Mrs. Larkin who taught me both honors and AP Chemistry. She was like having a mother at school and told us to be proud of the fact that we were nerds for even being in the class. After taking biology, I had started to really hate science but then Mrs. Larkin came along and taught us an appreciation for chemistry even if we never learned to love it. We were allowed to converse during class and even permitted to go off topic as long as we proved that we had mastered what was taught that day. (I remember one class when we looked up the nutritional facts for PF Changs. Great Wall of Chocolate: 2000 calories) She brought us muffins and taught us to make ice cream. By the end of the year, we had mastered Chemistry without even realizing it. I'm a chemistry major now solely because of her.

As for college, Professor Hornbeck has to be my favorite teacher so far and shockingly he teaches theology. It is a sign of his greatness that he made me actually give a crap about theology in the first place. I'm not particularly religious and scoff at most of what the Catholic church does but his class was one I never wanted to skip and I always did my readings because I didn't want to disappoint him. He led actual discussions instead of spoon feeding us doctrine. We were allowed to say whatever we wanted, including questioning the existence of God, as long as we could back it up. And I'm taking another class taught by him just to be taught by him again. (Well I suppose the Reformation is interesting too...)

Bakerloo said...

Hey Amanda - what's up, Crusader! I did not have Larkin but I heard she was amazing. My sister loved her anatomy class.

I really wanted to take Joan's honors English class because it was supposed to be the hardest. She made us bust our asses in Creative, though. I was kind of glad I didn't end up in honor English junior year!

There were a bunch of excellent teachers at Eustace. I am really thankful for what I learned there.

I graduated in 1998 - what year were you?


PS - Liz, I have to tell you about my week at clown school sometime. It was hilarious and TOTALLY not my scene.

Stephanie said...

Thank you. As an English teacher who religiously reads your blog, thank you.

This is why I became a teacher. Not only was I a geek who loved school and learning (still do!), but I was always surrounded by teachers (mom's friends) and taught by teachers who were truly inspirational and exceptional.

I'd like to thank: Miss McCue, Mrs. Manik, Mrs. O'Connor, Mr. VanBenthuysen, Mrs. Quackenboss, Mrs. Collins, Mrs. Wilson, Dr. Pullen, Mrs. Sardella, Mr. Gorman, Mr. Weigand, Mr. Reed, Dr. Goff, Mr. Silvestri. I try to channel your spirits in my classroom everyday. Hopefully I live up to your fine examples.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'm a lurker and never posted before. But I'm in college and majoring in teaching English as well, mostly because of a Mrs. Motaski and a Ms. Morali back in high school, and I feel like giving them major props.

Mrs. Gale Motaski taught English AP and was one strict lady. She constantly informed us that we lived under a rock and that school was schooling us, not educating us. She spent most of the class telling us stories about her life that somehow always seemed to end up with us learning more about the text, or a concept, or about life in general (I'm still not sure how she managed that). There was also her ability to, without speaking, completely get across her point that she expected us to act like civilized human beings, not hormonal, brainless high school kids, and matters of etiquette were unofficial LAW in her classroom. Along with being the first teacher to introduce to us the fact that different "classes" (history, science, english, math, etc) were linked together, this was probably my most educational class. Not because of the subject matter, but the stuff she taught besides the subject matter.

Ms. Morali was almost like her polar opposite, and they were buddies. I had Ms. Morali for Creative Writing, and she was loud, opinionated, cynical, and perfectly aware that her class was mainly a "fly-by" elective. She also didn't care. My high school wasn't exactly a booming paradise of intellectual prosperity, full of eager learners who valued their education, but Ms. Morali focused on finding something each student liked and having them write about it, so that folks who didn't like writing would still look forward to handing in their papers and seeing what she thought. Like Mrs. Motaski, the stuff you learned in her class about writing wasn't as important as the stuff she taught you about the world - she was always ready to point out stupid and how you could avoid it.

Amanda said...

I graduated in 2007. Its a shame you couldn't take her honors class, it was the best. I'm glad the creative writing class existed then because it was recently scrapped do to lack of interest which I thought was a crime.

There were indeed a lot of great teachers at Eustace, they prepared me so well for college.

Go Crusaders!

Anonymous said...

The most boring class in high school was Mrs. English's English Literature class. (shame she probably didn't have a chance to choose her profession...fate)
Anyway, to while away the time, my friend and I usually were involved in some form of rowdiness, stupidity or just downright idiotic behavior that would always result in the teacher trying to embarass us by calling on us, knowing we never even heard the question much less had a clue what "literature" was.

In a devious attempt to cure her of her problem, we decided to study really, really hard. We would learn the material to the very best of our pea-brained ability. Then we reverted back to our fun loving ways until she called on us and we fired back the answer. Heh. That stopped her. But we weren't done. We continued to study and then started doing the "Ooo! Ooo! Pick me. Pick me." routine while wildly waving our hands. We refused to let her call on anyone else in the class. If she tried, we would blurt out the answer. We taught her.

L.M.'s D.

P.S. I eventually graduated from college with a minor in English Lit. (plan gone awry)

agent57 said...

I had crushes on so many of my science teachers. I mean... respectable, platonic types of crushes. [mostly.]

Surprisingly, one of my favorite classes of my college career was my Comp II class. Just so you know, I went to art school, so this was a class I had no expectations for. I figured it would be dumbed down. I would just have to write a few boring research papers, and that would be it. It turned out to be a really interesting and thought-provoking exploration into art theory and how words and images interact, and that was probably 100% thanks to the professor. Sure there were papers to write, but every one of them was about an idea that excited me. One of them was all about the differences between "nude" and "naked".

I took a Mythology class with the same guy later on, and it was also great.

Liz said...

This is great. I've loved reading everyone's teacher memories. These folks are doing a pretty thankless job but it's good to know that so many folks appreciate what they've done.

Yes, bakerloo, I absolutely have to know about clown school. And how cool that you and Amanda went to the same school! Small world!

Stephanie, congratulations on doing the work that you do. And trust me, if you yell at the kids in ancient Greek, they'll totally behave. :)

Christopher said...

Ok so I've had quite a number of simply inspiring teachers.
-Mr. Doolan, AP Amer. History. He taught concisely and effectively, and he really got to know us students. He expected the best from us, and he got if from most. And, he threw markers at us if he felt like it.
-Ms. Brooks, AP Literature. Probably the best teacher at my high school. She expected nothing less than our best effort and honesty from us. We read more that year than any other year of school, from Pillars of the Earth to Le Morte D'Arthur. Our discussions were meaningful and stimulating and always rewarding. the class was the most taxing I had in high school. But, at the end of the year, we made a movie starring characters from the books we read, and it was the most hilarious project ever. Seriously, anything that involves a French Beowulf, Lenina of Brave New World, and a preppy Morgan Le Fay running around a parking lot and interrogating McDonalds employees is worth a year of stress.
-Mr. early, Latin
He isn't as crazy as yours seems to be, but he is pretty awkward. but he really cared about your understanding of the language and loved its nuances. I worked with him for our latin club, and he could be unreliable at times but he knew how to operate things. He occasionally got on my nerves with his awful puns, nevertheless he meant well. and he dealt with the freshmen taking-this-cuz-its-easy kids, which makes it a challenge to get up in the morning...

So yeah, Go Teachers!

Anonymous said...

Wow, reading all these wonderful comments really brings back some memories.

I was very lucky to have had any number of fantastic teachers in school and college.

In high school, my Spanish teacher Mrs. Lohnes made learning a second language seem like a breeze. I had her for first and third year Spanish, and when I got to college, I couldn't believe how much better-prepared I was than my peers. My best English teacher, Eleanor Curtin Cameron, encouraged me to "write something every day!" which I have done pretty much, LOL, though I wouldn't want her to see my more torrid fanfics. ; ) My junior year AP US history teacher, Tom Madson, was an absolute crackerjack. I learned more from him than possibly any other teacher, including how to do research with primary source materials. I would never have scored that 5 on the AP exam if not for his dedicated work. And how can I forget Norma Commins, the woman who prompted me to become a biology major? "I see a quiz on the horizon," she'd say with a little twinkle in her eye. I never could have handled college biology without the preparation of those "little quizzes."

And then there's the guy who taught that summer chemistry class I took--the guy who made chemistry suddenly explicable to me. Mr. Gordon? I think that was his name. Thanks to him, I survived college chemistry, no small feat.

In college, my professors were mostly amazing. Will Smith, Susan Smith (my thesis advisor), and Will Millard--they all rocked. Gail Bernstein in the psychology department--I took an advanced elective with her that I didn't even need because she was such an amazing professor. And then there was Tom Something (I'm blanking on the last name), the Hottest Chemistry Professor Ever, who dressed up as Tom Cruise's character from Risky Business on Halloween and danced to Bob Seger in front of the class.

In graduate school, Dr. Braxton taught me almost everything I needed to know about working in higher education administration. I almost cried when he left Syracuse. Why, Dr. Braxton, why?!?!

To all my terrific teachers, I salute you and thank you from the bottom of my geeky heart!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Richard Nornhold at Warrior Run High School in a very, very small town in Pennyslvania. He taught a class called "Problems in American Democracy" which basically looked at the good/bad/ugly and the really,really ugly in American Government. This was a class where we discussed what was happening in the moment (fall of 1994-- there was plenty to discuss, if you remember) and were able to disagree with anything, as long as we could back it up. We were expected to read the paper and be well-informed on current events, which trained me to be that way in life in general. His class was something I looked forward to and a class that actually challenged me on a daily basis. There were some amazing teachers in my journey, but he stood head and shoulders above them all.

Renee said...

Natalie Ruyak, 9th grade Honors English...put all the smart kids in an extended 5th period class, and you're just asking for trouble, but Mrs. Ruyak was the mistress of teaching, inspiring, and challenging us without crushing our spirit. She let us play Trivial Pursuit when we got too far ahead of the other (non-extended period) Honors class, she didn't shriek when someone stole the dissected fetal pig's head from Biology and left it on her desk in homage to our studies of Lord of the Flies (in fact, I believe the perpetrators got extra credit!), and she laughed harder than anyone when that stripping gorilla we ordered for her birthday showed up :)

11th grade, another fantastic teacher: Judy Smullen. While Mrs. Ruyak nurtured our tender Freshman souls, Mrs. Smullen toughened us up for the real world. She was a stickler for grammar, punctuation, and clarity of expression, and from her I learned how to write--*really* write. What a shock it was when most of our class received no higher than a C on that first paper--we had all been thrown A's for most of our academic careers, without breaking a sweat! But Mrs. Smullen was like a Marine drill seargent--she broke us of our bad habits, our complacence, and taught us to think and write critically. I *breezed* through my college writing requirements because of her, and even had grad school professors comment on how well my *lab reports* were written!

I am the writing queen of my company, and it's all because of those two ladies, so Thank You, Mrs. Ruyak and Mrs. Smullen :)

Anna van Schurman said...

I have a PhD in English; I've been to a lot of school, and I was good at it. I have almost no memories of any particular teachers. I'm always surprised when people wax poetical about their teachers.