“I developed the Great Teacher theory late in my freshman year. It was a cornerstone of the theory that great teachers had great personalities and that the greatest teachers had outrageous personalities. I did not like decorum or rectitude in a classroom; I preferred a highly oxygenated atmosphere, a climate of intemperance, rhetoric, and feverish melodrama. And I wanted my teachers to make me smart. A great teacher is my adversary, my conqueror, commissioned to chastise me. He leaves me tame and grateful for the new language he has purloined from other kings whose granaries are filled and whose libraries are famous. He tells me that teaching is the art of theft: of knowing what to steal and from whom. Bad teachers do not touch me; the great ones never leave me. They ride with me during all my days, and I pass on to others what they have imparted to me. I exchange their handy gifts with strangers on trains, and I pretend the gifts are mine. I steal from the great teachers. And the truly wonderful thing about them is they would applaud my theft, laugh at the thought of it, realizing they had taught me their larcenous skills well.” Pat Conroy, The Lords of Discipline, Chapter 27
My friend Margie says there is no such thing as a self-made person. No one lives in a vacuum. No one got where they are without someone teaching them, helping them, cheering for them. Of course, we can only become that success that is often attributed to being a self-made person by learning, accepting help where it is offered, working hard, and making the kinds of decisions that allow people to cheer for us. Lots of people are exposed to great teachers and wise assistance without benefiting from them in any personal way because they don’t have the determination and the work ethic. Maybe they lack the belief that they can do something. And others lack the vision to see what is possible.
The people we have around us – by birth, by circumstances, and by choice – have a profound influence on our lives. Much has been written about how our entire lives are influenced by the family that has surrounded us since birth. How accepting was your family? Where did you fit into the birth order? What did your family value? And on and on and on. The same is true for the friends that we choose. People constantly remind us of how we are judged by the company we keep. “You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” Often our parents try to steer us away from certain friends. My folks even forbade my playing with certain children if they thought there was likely to be adverse effects.
But what about the people in your life who are there by circumstances – especially those you are required to be around? When we were children, we had teachers in our lives and for 160+ days of the year spent more time with them than with our family. I had school teachers who are still vivid in my memory decades later for one reason or another. Mrs. Connor, or as the kids called her Cave Lady Connor (partly because she was old and partly because she introduced us to ancient history, was the scariest teacher in my elementary school. I was afraid at the thought of her class. She was stern, but she introduced that history in a way that sparked a love of history in me. She taught me that high standards are okay and to be open to new subjects and ideas.
To open the class of my first drama teacher, Mr. Edmonds, asked everyone to tell him why they had chosen drama as their elective. When he came to me, he found a rather surly teenager who was not happy that she hadn’t gotten her real choice. I looked at him and said, “Because cooking class was closed.” He didn’t say a word and just moved on. He never acted like I had said something so rude. At the end of the year when we needed his signature to sign up for Drama II, he smiled at me and said, “So cooking’s closed again next year?” Mr. Edmonds taught me to be open to new things and to not allow first impressions to automatically become permanent impressions.
Mrs. Sampson was a formidable woman who taught English. My friends had all warned me about how difficult and demanding she was. They told everyone who would listen that Mrs. Sampson hated the gentile students in our predominantly Jewish school. Of course, I was assigned to her class. I kept my mouth shut and tried to blend into the furniture. One day I was faced with asking her permission to miss her class to go and hear a guest speaker who was visiting the building. She looked at my friend and I, got a very serious and unnerving look on her face, and said, “Under one condition…” We were afraid of what would come next, but she said, “You have to come back and tell me all about it. I really want to go too, but I have to teach your class!” Over the year I learned that her reputation of hating the gentile kids was the result of someone who didn’t do well and was looking for someone to blame. She was curious, was humorous, and was fair above all things.
There were lots of teachers in my life who made a huge difference. Some of them, like the ones mentioned above, actually worked in a school and listed teaching as their careers. As you might notice, I didn’t mention the lessons from their syllabus or lesson plans as the important things they taught me. They had great content lessons – some of the lousy teachers had decent content too – but it was who the teacher was that touched me first. I learned their content lessons but I cherished their life lessons. This idea was shared by Luke Davis who wrote in a blog entry reflecting on Pat Conroy’s Great Teacher theory,
One of the most striking things about that passage is what it is lacking. There is no mention of carefully crafted lesson plans, deep knowledge in one’s subject matter, a full set of classroom management skills, and the like. There’s not so much an emphasis on what a teacher does but I see a whale of a lot of weight on what type of person a teacher is. (“Sacred Chaos” by Luke H. Davis, author and teacher, http://lukehdavisfiction.blogspot.com/2013/03/pat-conroy-and-teaching-greatness.html)
There were many more teachers throughout my life who never stood in front of a classroom. These others taught me by how they lived their own lives and words they shared with me. Joni Eareckson Tada taught me to be thankful for what I have and to put things into perspective. Harry Chapin used his talents and fame to help those without food. He gave and gave and gave. S. Truett Cathy certainly made a fortune, but it’s the personal parts of his life where he did so much for orphans that spoke to me. Think of the people we see in the world who shape our thoughts and provide us with role models we would like to emulate. I’m sure that I would love to have:
- the compassion of Mother Teresa
- the fearlessness and sense of justice of Nelson Mandela
- the caring and willingness to work for others of Bono
- the ability to use my talents in service of others like Matt Damon, Jimmy Carter
- the words to motivate and inspire like Maya Angelou
- the work ethic of Cal Ripken, Jr.
- the courage of Malala Yousafzai
- the originality and lack of jealousy of Amy Poehler whose web site (amysmartgirls.com) highlights the accomplishments of other women
And not all of my teachers were real. My ideal is Atticus Finch. I would so much like to be everything he was (in To Kill a Mockingbird – not in a different work).
People we meet everyday will sometimes provide an example, show up at a teachable moment, and illustrate something important for us. Denise Schnur is someone I have relied on to help me see that there are usually reasons for the way people act. Sharon Spangler showed me how someone can move mountains to help others without fame, position, and fortune to help them. Mary Sue Cline shows me how someone can get so much done when she doesn’t care who gets the credit. Jessica Nupponen illustrates (literally – with chalk) how a positive word can lift people up. There are countless others I could name.
Of course, there are also those teachers who fall under my “If you can’t be a good example, at least be a terrible warning” category. I had a student giving a speech tell the class that she learned the most about what kind of person she wanted to be from her brother. She wanted to be everything he wasn’t. My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. Hetherington, falsely accused me of stealing something. I really cared what she thought of me, and, as evidenced by the fact that I remember it all these years later, I was devastated that she believed this. She taught me that it is important to know the whole story and to not judge based on innuendo or rumor. We’ve all had people who taught us what we didn’t want to do or be by allowing us to feel what happens to others when our actions and words are not noble and up-lifting.
When people sit around and start talking about their experiences in school, they will often regale others with stories of the strangest, quirkiest, meanest, and most difficult teachers they ever had. Sometimes it seems that there weren’t any good ones. But with just a nudge, we all go back easily and think about the ones who made a huge, positive difference in our lives. They may have been a teacher in a classroom, but they may have also been a coach, a scout leader, a relative, a neighbor, a public figure, or a character in a book. I always wanted to be one of those teachers because I had some of those teachers. They inspired me. And they inspired the wonderful author I stared this all with, Pat Conroy:
The teachers of my life saved my life and sent me out prepared for whatever life I was meant to lead. Like everyone else, I had some bad ones and mediocre ones, but I never had one that I thought was holding me back because of idleness or thoughtlessness. They spent their lives with the likes of me and I felt safe during the time they spent with me. The best of them made me want to be just like them. I wanted young kids to look at me the way I looked at the teachers who loved me. Loving them was not difficult for a boy like me. They lit a path for me and one that I followed with joy. (“The Teachers of My Life” by Pat Conroy, March 9, 2014 http://www.patconroy.com/wp/?p=223)
After you read this blog post, comment on it. Tell me about the teacher who mattered to you and made a difference in your life. Recommend your own favorite book that shows you a great teacher (classroom or otherwise).
A FEW INSPIRING TEACHERS IN LITERATURE :
Albus Dumbledore, Minerva McGonagall and others in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Mr. Browne in Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Christy Huddleston in Christy by Catherine Marshall
Mr. Daniels in Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Mr. Falker in Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco (Mr. Lincoln in Mr. Lincoln’s Way, Miss Chew in The Art of Miss Chew, Mrs. Peterson in Junkyard Wonders, and others)
“Fat Bob” Nowak in I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora
Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkein
Miss Honey in Matilda by Roald Dahl
Mark Thackeray in To Sir With Love by E. R. Braithwaite
Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
Mr. P in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Pat Conroy in The Water is Wide by Pat Conroy (and of course Colonel Edward T. Reynolds (Bear, Edward the Great) The Lords of Discipline)
A BONUS IF YOU ARE STILL READING!
Especially if you are a teacher!
What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali
The Blueberry Story by Jamie Volmer