Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Great Teachers I Have Known

The question has been raised: What makes a great teacher? I can only point to some great teachers I knew and, maybe, to a bad one or two.
by Charlie Leck

The local paper ran a feature this past week about what makes a great teacher. It was all pretty good stuff, but not the kind of thing that is going to find a host of new and worthy teachers to instruct our kids.

This, it appears to me, is a significant problem today. I’m not very confident that instruction in educational method will reap a bounteous crop. It hasn’t up to now and that’s not about to change. What our schools need are great teachers. There are too few of them.

There’s been enormous resistance on the part of teachers’ unions up here to the idea of bringing in talented people from the private and public sphere (of life) to teach in our schools. These unions are playing blind-side tackle for their teachers, protecting them from getting slammed to the ground by an outside linebacker. Too bad!

I can think of five awfully good teachers I had during my life, each of whom had a life changing impact on my life. They are all gone now, out among the stars, and I can’t go back to say thank you. Somewhere along the line, I wish I had.


Mrs. Williamson was my teacher in third or fourth grade. It’s difficult to remember a detail like that from fifty years ago. I can remember her kind face and bright eyes, however, and how excited for me she would get when I “got” something. Sure, we were only working on non-complex things like our times-tables and the first elements of English grammar, but there were still discoveries to be made. Mrs. Williamson blew up in excitement when one of those discernments was made. Her attitude was contagious and rubbed off on her students. We not only enjoyed the discoveries ourselves, but we enjoyed the enthusiastic way she shared her happiness with us over our accomplishments.

In fourth or fifth grade I ran into a teacher of quite the opposite nature – almost exactly the opposite. I remember going through a period of confusion about some math principle that all my fellow students had seemed to grasp easily. It was odd for me, because up to that time I had considered myself one of the best of students in my classes. Suddenly I fell a step behind. This fellow – a short guy, with dark hair and a dark, thin mustache – wasn’t there to pick me up or catch me up. I simply fell behind and I remember how devastated I was over it. Slowly, over that year, being one step behind became two, three or four steps and I was categorized. For the next 9 or 10 years, I felt the wound and I was handicapped by it. When algebra and geometry came along, I was always a few steps behind, fighting to catch up, aching inside and always ready, in total discouragement, to give up.

I was strongly ego driven as a kid. I had a hearty need to be liked and well thought of. My failings in science and math made me push myself in other areas. So, I put the accelerator down on things like English, writing, history and, queerly, typing. That’s when I met two of the finest teachers in the whole wide world.


Miss. Haven was my history teacher. To this day I would rather pick up a history book than any other subject matter. It’s ‘cause of her. She loved her subject and she knew it cold. She taught it like she loved it and she made it come alive. It wasn’t just "here’s what happened and now remember it." It was a great story of humanity and the way we are impacted by events and forces that took place even hundreds and hundreds of years ago. She made us see that there was a real and living connection between the actual moment Patrick Henry stood and proclaimed that he wanted liberty or death and our own moment as we sat listening in the classroom.

“He didn’t speak just then,” I can imagine her saying, “but he speaks for us today, even at this moment when our boys are ready to fight for our freedom wherever and when they must.”

Miss Haven was a big woman – not fat, but big – and her students had a certain amount of respect for both her size and her brilliance. She knew her subject cold. I think that’s one of the important things about teachers. I just imagine a kid will see through a teacher who doesn’t really know his subject.

Miss Williamson and Miss Haven knew how to praise a student and build him up – giving him confidence and courage. I had so many teachers who were committed to tearing kids down and making sure they understood their positions on the ladder of life. They all pretty much stunk at teaching – that is, at what they got out of their students. Gym teachers and athletic coaches were often a lot like that. My PhysEd teacher all through high school was a sarcastic and bitter man. I’m not sure, but I don’t think the sports guys were sold on their own positions in life and not completely proud of what they were doing.


Mrs. Call was my English teacher in high school. Perhaps it is more correct to say that she was one of them, but I don’t remember any other. Her name was Mae. She was a good friend of my mother. She and her husband, Bob, would often have dinner or a “night out” with my parents. In school, Mae Call took good care of me and kept me afloat when I felt I was drowning. She encouraged me in so many ways and it was because of her that I got very involved in oral readings, speech, debate and drama. Everytime that I was nearly running on empty in the confidence and ego department, Mae would save me by making me the star of a play or the leader in a public speaking contest.

I remember so clearly, in my first week of college classes, in an introduction to American literature class, the instructor asked me stand and read a short poem by Emily Dickinson that we’d been assigned to study. I rose and read it out…

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
and Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ‘tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward Eternity.

After I returned to my desk, the professor went back to her podium and looked down at me and said softly: “My, that is one of the finest voices I have ever heard.”

I blushed, of course, and looked down at my desktop, but I thought of Mae and her blessed, patient tutoring. How many times, when I was sinking and didn’t think I could swim anymore, did dear Mae have me up to her house for special tutoring and help? I wonder what would have happened to me in life had it not been for this dear, good and devoted teacher.


In college I encountered Dr. Harry Savage. Professor Savage was, I think, other than a fellow who regularly bought newspapers in my father’s general store, the first real academician and genius I ever met. He taught history. While he taught history, he taught his students about life and the romance and glory of greatness.

When Harry Savage took you on a mind-voyage back to the age Greece, for example, it was an extraordinary journey. We could hear the sonorous voice of Aeschylus himself, reading one of his own, great tragedies to us and the lecture room echoed and rang with excitement and the pulse of Doctor Savage’s grand tones.

His strength all thunder-shattered; and he lies
A helpless, powerless carcase, near the strait
Of the great sea, fast pressed beneath the roots
Of ancient Ætna, where on highest peak
Hephæstos sits and smites his iron red-hot,
From whence hereafter streams of fire shall burst,
Devouring with fierce jaws the golden plains
Of fruitful, fair Sikelia. Such the wrath
That Typhon shall belch forth with bursts of storm,
Hot, breathing fire, and unapproachable,
Though burnt and charred by thunderbolts of Zeus.
Not inexperienced art thou, nor dost need
My teaching: save thyself, as thou know’st how;
And I will drink my fortune to the dregs,
Till from His wrath the mind of Zeus shall rest.

He taught history, Harry Savage did, and I took Greek History, English History, European History and World War One and Two History courses from him. Indeed, they were great classes, but it was Doctor Savage who made me hungry to read Dickens, and the Brownings, and Milton… and on and on and on.

Old Doctor Savage (for he was very old when I studied under him) virtually changed my life. Somehow I didn’t feel the impact until I was nearly in my forties, but he infects me today and permeates my thinking in every way; and I ache to hear his voice again even though it is long, long silenced.


Finally, only a short word about one more teacher – one who really revolutionized my life. He taught me two of the most important things that I have carried with me constantly and use regularly in skillful manners (thanks to him).

Tom Campbell was a graduate school instructor. One of his greatest skills was that he could read a book with exceptional skill, tearing it apart and putting it back together again, perceiving things about it that I hadn’t the first idea about. He taught those skills to anyone who wanted to learn about them. They weren’t part of a course, but they were usually short tutorials in the cafeteria, over coffee and a piece of pie.

“Here’s how you approach a book,” he would say and then detail the manner in which he worked. He taught me there were presuppositions that every author had in his mind when he began. Every writer of a book came from somewhere and had plenty of ideas, thoughts and opinions before he began. If one reads carefully, one can pick up those little facts and figures early in the book. Then one drove to capture and detail the thesis of the book. He’d always detail a thesis so carefully and thoroughly, point to its establishment in various places, again almost always early in the book. Then would come argument, where the author would defend his thesis. Tom Campbell taught me how to look for the important kernels that were thesis defense and to worry less about the extraneous ramblings.

I must say, finally, that Tom Campbell, in the classroom, also taught me about community organization and how to define “community” and he showed me that any community can be organized around what it perceives to be important and driven toward goals and purposes. He showed me examples of how it had been done toward evil and costly goals, but also how it could be done toward positive and meaningful purposes. I have used the skills frequently and, often, successfully.

Doctor Thomas Campbell was one of those good and special people in this world who die much, much too young. He was the greatest teacher with whom I ever studied. Among human beings, he was the greatest I ever knew.


Enough! I don’t know if I’ve said anything important about teaching, how to teach, or being a good teacher; I’ve only told you about great teachers I have known. There were so many other very good ones.


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1 comment:

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