Some teachers mark you for life. They inspire in an unexpected way, leaving an indelible imprint on who you choose to eventually be. Not all lessons you learn in school are academic. Not all messages teachers send are intentional.
I had a phenomenal English teacher in high school. Her passion for literature and excitement over writing had me putting forth my best efforts, totally engaged in the classroom. I had always been an avid reader who loved to write. She honed my skills and taught me how to better express myself. She added fuel to my artistic fire, forever cementing my love of the subject.
I became an English teacher myself in hope that I too could share my passion. As part of my training I was required to do a series of academic observations in the classroom, shadowing teachers on their daily rounds. Of course I decided my mentor should be one of those I followed. She did have more to teach, but not at all how I expected.
I arrived at school, we had our moment of nostalgia and moved into the first class of the day, which was an honors English course. The subject was Edgar Allen Poe, and I sat in the back listening and smiling, witnessing the growing enchantment as students fought for deeper understanding of the material. It was just as engaging as I remembered. Hands avidly shot into the air to answer questions, colorful opinions clashing. Students read passages aloud to support their points, eager to share their insights. The hour flew.
The next hour belonged to a basic English language skills course. We carried our bags in and placed them on the desk in front of the classroom. My mentor reached into her briefcase and removed a set of mimeographed sheets to distribute. She leaned in and whispered, “These are my cabbages. It is the longest hour of the day but a good opportunity to grade papers.” Wait- What?
There were no questions during this period. In fact there was no interaction at all to speak of. The teacher distributed paperwork to be completed with no talking allowed. She merrily graded essays from the students she had last period while dully complacent kids struggled to complete sheets on basic grammar. When they finished, which most did not, they were told to take out the evening’s homework and get started.
Who was this person? What had happened to the sparkling enthusiasm of an hour ago? I smiled at the students as they shuffled out, some of them nodding politely back at me. “Alright, that’s done with,” the teacher muttered with a twist of her lips. I followed her to the next session, which involved more paperwork. She did take questions and address this group but her patience was minimal, answers short and clipped. The final class I attended was another round of Honors English. She was a completely different person, animated, sparkling and performing, drawing verbal caricatures of Ahab and his obsessions. I thanked her for sharing the day with me and left in a daze.
I was outraged. I felt betrayed, shattered by ugly revelation. Yes, she was an amazing teacher to those who could rise to her preferred level of understanding. Those challenged or those she deemed lacking imagination or ability were left in the dust. The greatness I admired had more to do with her own ego than any true desire to instruct. Successful students were a reflection of her own brilliance. The less successful were not worthy of her time or attention.
Cabbages? How dare she. Each and every student is a person deserving of respect without exception. Minds belong to individuals who need warmth, support and understanding. They are our responsibility , entrusted to our care. We exist to serve their needs, to brush upon their canvases the knowledge, aid, and humanity we can share. Teachers exist to serve, support and nurture.We are a vital part of development, and students soak up messages like a sponge. The influence we wield need be positive.
Honors students will learn in spite of us. They are academically successful because they seek knowledge. The students most in need of direction and support is where teacher input is critical. Those faltering and in need of help are counting on us to guide them. If they are treated as unworthy, that is the lesson we impart.
As part of my educational instruction I was required to write an assessment of each teacher I observed. My favorite teacher of all time received my worst evaluation. Don’t misunderstand. She gave me many hours of joy and launched me onto my chosen career path. I remain grateful for all that she taught me, including her final lesson. Teaching is not about ego. It is about service.