Remembering Teachers: The Good, the Bad, and the Joyless

The other day on Facebook some friends and I were reminiscing about a few of our literature professors.  We were pretty much in agreement about who was a lousy instructor and who rocked our world.

One of the teachers we discussed taught Shakespeare, but focused almost exclusively on the problems of the plays, so I rarely got a sense from him of what made the Bard one of the greats.  He had no joy or passion for the subject matter.

Another actually engaged the texts we read with care and wonder, in a manner I found difficult and challenging and intriguing. His eye went deep in search of meaning. In a sense, he taught me how to read literature patiently, lovingly, and inquisitively. He would raise questions about details all of us would pass over without a thought: Ahab spitting into a “silver calabash” before an altar in a Spanish country, for example. And he would tie these details together into a larger thread, helping us to see the truth of the work, the incarnational meaning that emerged though interpretation and analysis.  He had joy for the works we read and for teaching us how to read them.

What do you remember most about your teachers?  What irks you to this day or stays with you in a special place in your heart?

Follow Kyle on Facebook and Twitter.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

You may also like...

9 Responses

  1. Sam Wilkinson says:

    I remember all sorts of things but, today, my favorite memory is of a political science professor from college who taught us that it was alright to hate the people studied. It wasn’t necessary to pretend as though we weren’t human beings who had no emotional attachment to our work or our interests. The denial of that was unhealthy, she lectured. I tended to agree. In fact, I agreed so much that I ended up being a horrible political scientist. But I always appreciated the idea that we needn’t be automatons.

  2. Maribou says:

    I was just talking to my mom about this.

    One of my favorite moments was actually not from one of my favorite teachers – I liked her fine, but not excessively. Anyway, here it is:

    First day of seventh grade (several years pre-Internet!). Mrs. T walks over to the shelves at the side of the class, hands out all of our spelling textbooks. Then she dramatically tells us to pass them all back up to the front, and puts them back on the shelf.

    “As long as you all don’t need these, we won’t use them. By seventh grade, it’s usually more important to learn how to carefully read and revise your work, use the dictionary, and ask each other for help when you aren’t sure.”

    And for the rest of the year, we didn’t. (Individuals sometimes DID end up doing one-on-one spelling in that class, although it was discreet and I only ever heard about it from them; and a few classes did end up with regular spelling periods – but not ours.)

    That was the first time a teacher ever made me feel like we-the-students collectively affected what happened in the classroom. I’d been allowed to opt out of certain things before – but my impression was that those things were nonetheless set in stone, that the class would go how the class would go and we were just cogs being turned….

  3. Boegiboe says:

    I’ve had a few teachers who left their marks on me. One who I recently realized was quite important to me was my high school geometry teacher. It was 9th grade, and because the gifted ninth graders in my new school were taking algebra, I had to take a “regular” class. Coach Frye was the school’s baseball coach, and a passable math teacher. He was teaching to several of his tenth-grade players, and his attitude was very clearly “I don’t want to be in here any more than you do, so get this right and we can get out of here.” As a math lover, I didn’t appreciate this attitude, but the gifted class’s teacher was giving me tutoring in interesting geometry in the mornings, so I was satisfied. However, I found it impossible to stay awake unless I did something else. the Coach noticed me one day and told me to put away my other work and pay attention. I was furious but knew my place. After class, he asked me to stick around. “You aren’t paying attention, but you’re getting the best grades in the class. I hate you to be bored, but I have to keep everyone else interested. So, here’s the deal: You can do whatever you want if you sit in the back of the class, and you keep getting A’s on everything.”

    So, that’s what we did. About a week later, he called another student out for sleeping in class; this woke me up as well. That student pointed at me and objected, to which the Coach replied “When you’re getting perfect scores on your tests, you can sleep in class, too.” He pulled it off just right, so the class chuckled. After that, I was left alone–completely. More than once I woke up to an empty room, more than halfway through lunch. For the first time I was completely in charge of my education in a subject. It took a good deal of respect for the Coach to do that for me.

    What what best, though, was when, later in the spring, the Coach had to be absent one day, he held me after class again and asked me about what we were studying that week. I explained it, and he said “Can you do that tomorrow for them?” I was shocked. He wanted 15-year-old me to teach a lecture to the 16- and 17-year-olds in the class (what a difference a year seemed to make back then!). But, I was eager to prove myself, so I said yes. I expected trouble from a class prone to acting up, but the Coach gave them a sterner than usual warning before he left, and I went through whatever proofs we had to cover.

    That guy helped me become a man more than any other teacher in my two years at that school, and at the time I thought he was dumber than a rock. I didn’t understand what he’d done until I became a manager years later, thinking about how to help my employees mature. My apologies, Coach!

  4. BlaiseP says:

    Clyde Kilby. At the end of my 401 Modern Mythology class, the very last class he ever taught, I gave him a drawing of Reepicheep the Mouse, holding his chalice aloft. When I came in to take my final exam, he gave me an early 1700’s edition of Perrault’s Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé.

    The second professor, a grim old thing, attempted to teach me writing. Stern and pitiless, he’d beat my papers up like a bald-headed stepchild. I’d turn up for his office hours, where he’d run me down even more. When I finally confronted him, my weather varying somewhere between anguish and the strong urge to strike him, he feebly attempted to tell me that’s how he treated anyone with any promise as a writer. I told him plainly I would never take another course from him and I didn’t.

  5. Sam says:

    I wanted to add the following three. My passion in high school was writing. I thought I’d end up a journalist. Obviously, that didn’t end up happening, but nevertheless, writing was the thing I pursued most aggressively. I had three teachers who contributed greatly to this:

    -Mrs. Alvarez taught me to read aloud whatever we’d written to ourselves. She assured us that there was no greater way to find mistakes in our writing. If you do this technique long enough, you can internalize it, and writing improves.

    -Mr. Fuller taught me that reading something aloud to edit it meant reading WHAT WAS WRITTEN, not what you wanted to be written. This meant reading the words and the punctuation as they appeared on the page, not as they’d ideally appear on the page. Getting the little details right meant understanding when they were wrong.

    -Mr. Greene taught me to make the point I wanted to make, and to never go soft in the process. It was to be written until it was done, and never held back for anybody’s sake.

    Of these teachers, one was my high school English teacher, one was a college professor (whose class I took while a high school student), and one was my mentor at university newspaper that I worked at while in high school. Each had a profound effect on my thinking about writing, even if all I ever do now is post my “Briefly, on Cast Iron and Relativism” pieces here.

  6. Tod Kelly says:

    My best teacher ever was my music teacher, Bob Hughes, who taught me trumpet, clarinet and saxophone from the ages of 7 through 15. Bob was actually very light on the praise and quite heavy on the critical, but his criticisms were always couched in terms of what he believed I was capable of achieving; the way he grilled me week after week actually made me feel special, and I responded accordingly.

    I remember one day when I was about nine, I complained that I didn’t like the music selections from the book we were using. (In this particular book the emphasis was on achieving perfect tone.) Bob asked me what kind of selections I might prefer for this part of my study, and I listed off three or four songs; as I did so, he wrote them down. He owned a music store, and I was sure he was going to order me sheet music. When the lesson was done, he fished through his desk and pulled out a small stack of blank staff paper.

    “You’re lesson this week is to transpose those songs so that we can work on them later. I want to see a line for the melody, and a line for each counter melody in the recording.”

    This was way beyond anything I’d ever done; I just wanted t0 be handed sheet music. “I thought you wanted to work on tone,” I protested.

    “Yes, and we’ll get to that. But right now you seem to want to work on controlling what music you read, and the only way to do that is to know how to write down the music you want to play. So now we’re working on that.”

    My first attempts were as poor as you might expect; the melody was relatively easy, but he’d go to the piano and show me where my transcription of the different counter melodies was flawed and didn’t quite work. Over time, I got better; but more than that, I began to listen to music differently than I had before. My ear began to pick up habits that I’ve never lost. When I hear a new piece of music now, I track all of the things going on at the same time; before I mainly paid attention to the main thing (melody, solo, riff, etc). Bob Hughes didn’t just give me music lessons, he opened this series of amazing doors to a world into which I’ll never be tired of journeying.

    Such is the difference, I suppose, of deciding to not just be a teacher but a mentor as well.

  7. Will Truman says:

    I had two science teachers back to back who couldn’t have been more different.

    In the case of the first, he was a former chemical engineer who had made a fortune on an IPO and decided, in his retirement, to teach*. He was pretty awesome. It was one of the only times I ever looked forward to science class.

    The next year I had a career teacher who was, more or less, at the end of her line. I hated her. Thinking about her fifteen years later still makes me mad.

    The thing is, as far as actually learning science goes, I am not sure it made a bit of difference between the good teacher and the bad teacher.

    * – He remains, to this day, why I am a fan of alternative teacher certification and workplace-to-classroom transition programs.