Monday, June 14, 2010

What makes a teacher stand out?

Yesterday the Star Tribune had a prominent collection of short articles in its Opinion Page. The question that was asked was, “What makes a teacher stand out?” Six staffers from the Strib’s opinion page shared short responses to the question. Their response can be found here,

My parents both worked as public school teachers, so I grew up in a home that valued education and teaching. I shared last week that I would love to see a national holiday—similar to Memorial Day—where the public would gather on the last day of school and give thanks to all the adults who gave their time in some way to providing a quality education.

The Strib’s question prompted me to reflect on which of my teachers stood out. My parents were my most important teachers. Besides them I remember, in no order of importance, the following three teachers:

My first violin teacher, Ed Wilcox. He was a taskmaster who only accepted my best effort. He was insistent on disciplined practice. When I first started taking lessons from him, he re-did my bow stroke by making me play “Perpetual Motion” for six weeks. He was certainly capable of instilling fear in me. But the fear I experienced energized me to give my best. I ended up practicing my violin for two hours a day every day from seventh through eleventh grade. His obsession on discipline says with me to this day.

A math teacher in high school, John Forsyth. He taught me to love math. He was a combination of encourager and task master. He wasn’t afraid to push us, but he wouldn’t chew us out for a poor effort. He was always available. Once I remember studying for a test with a friend. The two of us were confused by a math concept. So I called Mr. Forsyth on the phone and asked him to help clear up my confusion. He was willing to explain the idea. Little did I know during the phone call that a significant part of the test was on that concept. I aced the test because he was willing to spend 15 minutes on the phone to clear up my confusion.

My college football coach, Bob Sullivan. He was a risk taker who wasn’t afraid to compete against the best. Because of his leadership Carleton College moved from the Midwest Conference to the M.I.A.C. He was up-beat, resilient, and not afraid of a challenge. If he hadn’t recruited me to play football at Carleton, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t have attended the college. I remember my first face-to-face visit with him. It was on a Sunday morning. The night before I had been completely unimpressed by the parties that took place all over the campus. I went to bed on that Saturday night looking forward to visiting another school the following week. But on that Sunday morning he took all the time I needed to tell me how Carleton was the right fit for me, his exciting plans for what he wanted to accomplish at Carleton, and how I could fit into these plans. I was sold. During my four years of playing football for him, I learned from him to never, ever give up on a project—even when the odds seem overwhelming.

I have many other teachers who stood out for me. I carry their lessons and the lessons of the above three with me. For better or worse, I wouldn’t be the person I am without their help.

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