Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Art of Teaching

Rich McConnell, class of 1958, Roxbury High School, Succasunna, NJ

Nothing – that is, no position – in America is more important than that of the teacher!
by Charlie Leck

A few weeks ago, in response to my blog about Great Teachers, one of my high school classmates and best friends in those days, sent me some thoughts about teachers and teaching. I found them both thoughtful and amusing and have waited for a good day to share them with you. This is that day. These remarks come to you from Richard J. McConnell (South Carolina).

1. During Senior Week at Rutgers, all the soon-to-be graduates were invited to a luncheon at the Rutgers’ Commons (cafeteria). The guest speaker was a faculty member, Dr. Houston Peterson, a philosopher of some high regard. As part of his presentation, he told us of the deathbed speech of Henry Clay. Henry Clay, according to Dr. Peterson, was surrounded by family and friends and decried that he had “wasted his life”. Those in the room were quick to tell him that he had been a great senator, Secretary of State, and statesman. Clay replied: “Perhaps, but I should have been a teacher and helped others to be great.” This resonated with me then, as it does now, and probably does with you as well, as a teacher.

2. This next story I believe to be true, but it could be apocryphal. Dr. Mason Gross was President of Rutgers during my time there. He was another highly-regarded philosopher, having studied under Alfred North Whitehead. Unfortunately, he’s perhaps best known for his stint as the resident expert on the old TV show “Two for the Money.” Dr. Gross sat at this big desk, stacked with reference tomes, and, when called upon, would validate contestants’ answers.

Anyway, to continue, as Rutgers’ President he still taught one course/year – a Senior’s Philosophy seminar, much sought after by graduating Philosophy majors. Our registration process, back in the late 50’s was very archaic, consisting of a room full of card tables covered with boxes of 80-column punched cards. Each box was labeled with the course name, number, and section number (for lecture courses). Dr. Gross’s course only had 20 seats available, and by some scheduling fluke one of the Senior Rutgers’ football players, and Phys. Ed major managed to pull one of the 20 cards. He bragged to all of his fraternity brothers that he was going to be President Gross’s class. The bragging ceased, however, when he received a note from Dr. Gross’s secretary indicating that he was to have a private meeting with the President, before classes started. This was Mason’s practice, since he always had Philosophy majors at his seminar, and he liked to discuss, individually, with each of his students, what they planned to do with their degree, after graduation.

When the time came for the dreaded meeting, the Phys. Ed major entered Gross’s office and blurted out: “I want to tell you right now, I don’t know nothing about Pluto and Socrates!” Gross, with nary a pause, replied: “Young man, over the millennia philosophers have been searching for what are called ‘self-evident” truths. You I believe have just uttered one.”

3. Another true story, that I read a number of years ago, was one of a serious of essays I’d read, by an another whose name I am desperately trying to recall. The theme of the essay was a teacher’s responsibility to continue his/her learning process in order to present that latest information to students. He goes on to tell this illustrative story of a mid-west Geology professor, who gave the same lecture year-after-year, word-for word. This was boring stuff, indeed, exacerbated by the fact that the professor had a pronounced lisp:

As the story goes the professor was droning on with his lecture, and said: “Every day the Mithathippi deposith 10,000th at the delta.” For the first time ever, a student, in the front row, raised his hand, to ask a question: “Excuse me, Professor, but is that tons or cubic yards?” The professor then referred to his ancient lecture notes, and the replied: “It doesn’t thay!"

I didn't ask Rich about posting these comments on my blog. I hope he doesn’t mind. And, I hope you got a chuckle or two out of them.


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