Thursday, January 04, 2007

Teacher, Teacher

So I've been seeing the trailers for the new Hilary "I want another Oscar" Swank vehicle, and it has me thinking. Not thinking I'll actually pay to see the movie (despite the hunky presence of Patrick Dempsey...McSwoon), but wondering why every movie about teachers has to portray them as either bumbling or inept (if it's a comedy) or incredibly, earnestly passionate about teaching, prone to making life-changing speeches to their previously disinterested students (if it's a drama). Was that your experience? Were those your teachers?

Let me start by saying that I come from a family of teachers, and I have the utmost respect for the profession. It's incredibly important, it's hard to do and harder to do well, they're generally criminally underpaid, and I cringe when I hear someone say they might have to "fall back on" teaching, if all else fails. Now granted, I wouldn't describe my own career path as anything but a whole bunch of "falling back on," but, in a perfect world, teaching shouldn't be subject to that. I had a few teachers who "fell back" on teaching and boy, did it show. To me teaching, like the ministry, should be a calling. The best teachers and the best preachers are the ones who really want to be there.

But back to the movies. I had some good teachers, some bad teachers, some great teachers, but never once did I have a teacher who stood in front of the class and gave speeches about the importance of education, igniting throes of passion in his/her students and succeeding where all others had failed in getting them to give a damn. That's so dramatic. I know, I know, it's a MOVIE, what am I expecting? But it's gotten tiresome, to me. And it's so predictable. And I'm pretty sure that in the small town where I grew up (and I'm guessing, lots of others), a teacher who got in the face of the principal and refused to play by the rules wouldn't have been given too many more chances for speech-making. Not that there weren't teachers willing to stand up for their beliefs, I'm sure, but it's all about finessing the approach. You catch more flies with honey, is what I'm sayin'.

I'm not saying I didn't have teachers who changed my life. I did. I'm saying I didn't have teachers who changed my life by making speeches. They did it by making learning fun. They did it with a gentle poking and prodding of individual students. I was a devastatingly shy child. There are certain things I NEVER would have asked for, things I NEVER would have done on my own. Did my teachers give me a speech? No. They quietly took me aside to give me special library privileges. They scheduled me to play or sing a solo in the Christmas pageant without having to audition for it in front of everyone. (Strangely enough, I never had a problem actually performing, just bringing myself to raise my hand in front of everyone and say "I'd like to..." or even to presume that I might be good enough to try. I've gotten over that since. Hee.) Those were life-changing things, but they sure weren't dramatic. I was probably the only one who noticed. I'm sure there were other life-changing things happening to other kids, as well, that only they knew about. That's a good teacher to me--more concerned with the little details of individual children than with making speeches. Not that we weren't occasionally subjected to some speechifying, but it generally resulted in little more than some eye-rolling on our parts.

I had more than my share of fun teachers, as well. Not the insecure "I want all the kids to like me, so I won't enforce any discipline" kind of "fun" teacher, but good teachers who saw the value of keeping things interesting. The chemistry teacher who took us on a trek through town, collecting water samples from the various creeks and streams for quality testing later in the lab. Who, just before Christmas, presented us with a lab instruction sheet entitled "Partial Thermal Degradation of Mixed Saccharides with Protein Inclusions." After an hour of precise work with beakers and bunsen burners, we had the most delicious peanut brittle you ever tasted. The math teacher who gave extra points for correctly predicting the point spread on the weekend football game, and who, on particularly beautiful days, let us finish our assignments sitting in the meadow next to the school. The English teacher who wasn't above allowing us to occasionally pull our chairs in a circle and play a quick game of Killer or literary charades. The junior high science teacher who kept a big box of small toys, given to anyone who made an A on a test. Oh, how we loved rifling through the box of "Huffy Toys." Once he got boxes of Cracker Jacks on sale, and that was the best of all--it was two toys in one! The grade school music teacher who could manufacture sets and costumes out of thin air, it seemed. The social studies teacher who passed out chewing gum on Fridays. And my own mother, my elementary school reading teacher, who patiently read aloud to us on Friday afternoons, one chapter each week from a book of our choice (and oh, how we girls cried at How the Red Fern Grows). No speeches, no Oscar-worthy drama. Just good teachers doing a good job of molding young minds, who nonetheless had no problem leaving it all (or mostly) behind at the end of the day--going home to to give equal dedication to their own families. I remember my mother typing her masters' thesis at the kitchen table with three young children underfoot; I remember her administering an afterschool tutoring program for disadvantaged kids; I do NOT remember her ever having a serious discussion with my father about whether she was neglecting any of us--she wasn't. As much as she cared about her students, she cared about her family more. No, she and her colleagues were not the stuff movies are made of, I suppose, but they're the kind of teachers I remember.

What kind of teachers do you remember?

11 comments:

Libragirl said...

I remember my 2nd grade teacher. She was the one who told my parents I needed speech therapy and because of her I can now say the letter R, which is good, since my name begins with an R. Everyone thought I had a cute little lisp or something that I would grow out of. They caught it just in time, by the next year, it would not have been able to be corrected. That's the teacher I remember. I've never had a teacher who gave speeches, or if I did, I stopped going to that class because it was annoying. I'm glad someone else thinks it's to much

Jasclo said...

I really need to write about teachers myself. I had a fanatstic teacher who I kept in contact with since high school and she died a couple months ago. Been too sad to think about it.

But you're right. No teachers who made me who I am stood in class and lectured on the importance of education.

stefanie said...

Well said. My favorite teacher in high school was this curmudgeonly old lady who everyone else hated. She was really funny if you knew when to take her seriously and when not to, and I actually learned way more from her in my 12th grade English class than I did in Freshman Comp. the following year.

Also, in first grade, my teacher was a tiny old nun who played jump rope with us at recess. She was awesome. :-)

As for that Hilary Swank movie, I had the same thought... "You're kidding me. We're doing THIS again?"

metalia said...

Ugh, I saw the commercial and rolled my eyes so hard. Totally agree, Liz...and very well-put!

Stinkypaw said...

I had a few teachers who were quite inspiring by the way they taught and related to the students, not by making speeches...

Sparkling Cipher said...

I think you're spot-on with that analysis.

The teacher I remember? Junior high English, she actually talked about writing and ideas and style instead of just forcing us to read stuff and regurgitate details. I really appreciated being treated like an intelligent person rather than a dumb, uninterested kid. She went a long way in teaching me to understand and appreciate literature even if I didn't like it.

In high school, there was also a biology/health teacher who gave us the graphic, down and dirty details of what happens when a person contracts an STD. It was both horrifying and fascinating. We all loved it.

lizgwiz said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who won't be waiting in line for the premiere of "Freedom Writers"--just typing the title makes my eyes roll. Sounds like we all had some great teachers--thanks for your stories!

gorillabuns said...

i personally could never be a teacher. no patience whatsoever. so there goes homeschooling for my kiddos!

as for grandious teaching, didn't happen to me. though, i did have a teacher that just so happened to be in broken arrow, that gave me the confidence i needed to learn math. she also was there to help guide me through an incredibly hard time in my life. i loved it when we spilled out in the floor with our hot chocolates singing rod stewart on the record player. needless to say, she didn't last that long in the overly strict christian school. neither did i.

lizgwiz said...

gorillabuns, I'm with you. I'd never cut it as a teacher. I did a little tutoring when I was in college, and learned it's just not for me. Hot chocolate and Rod Stewart sounds great!

guinness girl said...

This is such a great post, Liz - I sent it to my friend who is a teacher because I think she'll love it.

My teachers...yeah, none of them gave speeches - they did precisely the sorts of things you mentioned.

lizgwiz said...

GG, glad you liked it--hope your friend does, as well. Teachers need all the warm fuzzies they can get.