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What a Difference a Teacher Makes: The Good

September 23, 2009

I still remember my first grade teacher, Mrs. House, vividly.  (Yes, it was a long time ago, and no, I’m not going to give you an exact timeline.)  She was a dear lady, a great teacher, a gray-haired little dynamo whose energy and grandmotherly enthusiasm toward us kids was the perfect introduction to school, and she was universally loved.  I still have the Tiger Tail I earned and then wore on special days throughout the year; the thicker the tail (ie the more strings of yarn you had acquired) the greater your status in class.   We knotted them on giant safety pins and then proudly pinned them to our backsides.  Tiger Tails were the bomb!  (Or “sick,” in today’s parlance.)

I also remember Mr. Pearson, my fourth grade teacher.  He was a Vietnam vet who had been wounded in action and as a result had hearing aids.  If we got too obnoxious he would turn up the volume to get our attention with the resulting mechanical squeal, which we all thought was terribly cool.  He was fun, tough, had twinkly eyes, and let me take the class pet rats home on weekends (much to my mother’s chagrin).  We all thought he looked like “Mr. Kott-air” on Welcome Back, Kotter, which of course added to his cache.  (Yes, I know that ages me.  Do us both a favor and don’t attempt the math).  The fact that he is still one of my favorite teachers despite calling me out in front of the class for an isolated yet truly reprehensible act of cruelty over which I still bear guilt speaks volumes.

My next great teacher was Mac Burnell (fifth and sixth grade).  No nonsense, he effortlessly commanded respect despite being on the short and slender side, and was wicked smart with a ready smile and a dry sense of humor.  He also had one of the biggest Adam’s apples I’ve ever seen, which was quite frankly nothing short of mesmerizing for the first couple of weeks of school.  Mr. Burnell knew what each of us were capable of and didn’t accept anything less than our best.

And then there was Mr. Walsh.  I had him for two classes in high school (World History and Current Events) and I was also his teacher’s assistant for one semester during my senior year.  (Ah…I can still smell those freshly mimeographed copies with the purple ink…and yes, I know that ages me, too.  In fact the WordPress spellcheck doesn’t even recognize that word!  Scary.)  He was an older man with a thinning gray comb-over and a bit of an older-man belly who wore stretchy comfort slacks with a sewn-in “belt” just like my dad.  I loved Mr. Walsh.  We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum and got into some pretty good discussions in class.  I was a bit shy and very non-confrontational, but always felt perfectly comfortable raising my hand in his class and questioning something he said.  He never got mad, he respected my opinion, and he clearly enjoyed our verbal sparring.  He challenged my beliefs in the best possible way, and actually let me get away with calling him “Georgy-Porgy” on occasion (always with a smile).

Mrs. House, Mr. Pearson, Mr. Burnell and Mr. Walsh all left the best kind of impression on me.  They accomplished what I imagine every teacher – who should actually be teaching – hopes for; positively impacting a student for a lifetime.  It was obvious that each one of them loved to teach, loved kids and loved doing their part to help kids grow up to be well-educated and successful in whatever they chose to do.

I was fortunate enough to return years later (with the exception of Mr. Pearson) to thank each one and tell them how much I appreciated everything they had done for me.  It felt really nice, and was even a bit emotional for me (full disclosure:  I have been known to cry during AT&T “reach out and touch someone” commercials).  I know you remember your favorite teachers.  It’s never too late to reach out and touch someone to let them know they hold a special place in your heart, so why don’t you give it a shot?  It will do you both good.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Heidi permalink
    September 25, 2009 11:37 pm

    I had Mrs. House too and like you remember those Tiger Tails VIVIDLY. I also remember we earned them with different colored tickets, though I don’t quite remember exactly what we needed (though I believe it was ten of a certain color to get another piece of yarn for the tail- does that sound right?) to earn a Tiger Tail. Funny enough, one thing I remember very well, is that I knew I was ONE ticket of a certain color short to earn my next Tiger Tail and I found one on the floor and took it for my own!!!! The guilt of that act has stayed with me all these years!!! I hardly remember my Syre years (only attended there Kindergarten – Second Grade and then the boundary moved so I attended Hillwood) but I DO remember that ONE instance quite well.

    I never had Mr. Walsh (I had Alderdice) but also have my favorite teachers I will never forget in my mind and heart (Mrs. Weinstock, Mr. Vandenberg, Mr. Alderdice, Mr. Fick). Not long ago I wrote an email to Ms. Rippe (French teacher at Shorewood) because I found her name and email address for a class at a community college and I’ve felt guilty about how I behaved in her class ever since becoming a teacher myself. I wrote to her and told her how very sorry I was for my behavior and how badly I still feel about it. She was kind enough to email back and told me that (despite my horrid behavior) I had been one of her favorite students. It was nice, but I don’t think I’ll ever really feel ok about how I behaved in class.

    I wish I could go back and talk to more of the teachers that had such a positive impact on me throughout my education, but since I can’t, I try to express my appreciation to my children’s teachers now. I let them know how much I value the time they spend with my children and all that they do and that they ARE very important in their developing lives!

    Thanks for sharing!!!

  2. December 16, 2009 5:59 pm

    I loved reading about these teachers. What were your different political views, I wonder. And I remember the smell of mimeographs, too —

  3. savvymomsafekids permalink*
    December 16, 2009 6:07 pm

    Thanks, Charlotte. Mr. Walsh and I both laughed when I ranked “Conservative Troglodyte” on an in-class “where are you on the political spectrum ?” test. (Not a very flattering description!)

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