April 10, 2008

Thanking My Teachers

I've been involved in a few discussions lately in which public school education and teachers got pretty thoroughly dissed. I keep pointing out that good teachers exist and that many teachers play larger roles than they know in their students lives. I say it from personal experience, and I think it's about time I thanked my own teachers rather than (or in addition to) standing up for the profession on principle.

To start, I should point out that I could have been a poster child for recent resilience studies--the ones that say good outcomes are possible for kids with less than stellar home lives, as long as those kids have an involved and interested adult in their life. I should also mention that I'm likely to shortchange at least one teacher before sixth grade, since I really don't remember much before then.

The first teacher I remember who made a difference was my third sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Becker. She was my third teacher because we moved twice that year. I was pretty traumatized by the family drama that prompted the moves and was dealing with multiple culture shocks. To make a long story short, I made no friends that year, except my teacher. She had a place in the country to which she invited groups of students on weekend afternoons. She spent even her spare time on her students. I'll never forget picking watercress in the near-freezing stream that ran through her property or being talked to like a human being instead of a responsibility.

The next year, I had several very good teachers. Mr. Foley, who taught life sciences, was memorable for keeping a piranha--and our attention, even when there was a goldfish sharing its tank. But the real standout was my math teacher, Mr. Neuenfeldt. I'm not sure what made him so special. He got so exasperated with us sometimes, but it was always obvious that he just wanted us to learn--not to absorb his lessons, but to learn. He was the teacher who introduced me to the cool puzzle game that is identities. I joined the drama club because he ran it, and I took two years of math from him. I was already starting to work ahead in the second year, and he was always happy to take the time to help me through the tough spots, even though he'd be covering them for everyone else in a week or two.

I had to give up Mr. Neuenfeldt when I moved on to high school. I had a very good English teacher, Ms. Lammers, who was lovely about not freaking out when budding goths chose Millay at her most self-destructive for their poetry readings. And a great grammar lab teacher who started the year by telling us, "It isn't your fault you think grammar is hard. People insisted on trying to teach you before your brains were ready to take it in. Forget all that, and let's start again." We did. It worked, at least for me.

Doc Wilson, who taught choir, demanded more of me than any other teacher but not more than I could give. I learned a lot from him about singing, more about not deciding beforehand what I couldn't do. And there was the math and programming teacher, whose name I have no business blanking on, who never blinked when his quickest pupil was one of the few females.

Then came Mr. Bauer. I took three years of physics from him. He was my second teacher to make science really cool. Physicists have some of the best toys, and Mr. Bauer collected great demos. He could flick our homework at us from ten feet away and the pieces of paper would head straight for us. He assigned quarter-long, independent study projects for one class despite the chaos and despite the extra work it must have taken to keep us all on track. He threw erasers and turned the fire extinguisher on us when we got too rowdy and patiently wrote on the board for us as we collectively worked problems in class. He took a small lab/large storage space and turned it over to the physics club for use during lunches and study hall. We installed a coffee maker and stereo. It was our geek haven and so was he. Not surprisingly, he was awarded a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching.

There were more great teachers in college, but they'll get their own post at some point. To all the teachers mentioned above, and to the others who taught me well even if they didn't save my life, thank you. I was a self-centered brat in school so I never said it then. I say it now. Thank you.

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