“School days, school days, dear old Golden Rule days …”

Do you remember your school days?  I remember mine.  Well, not in total detail, but well enough.  So when I saw Michelle W’s Daily Prompt the other day, I teacherthought, “I can answer this“.  “What makes a teacher great?”

I’ll start by admitting I didn’t entirely love school.  For the most part I found it uninspiring.  I was bored.  Not because I’m uber smart.  Trust me, I’m not.  I was bored because I wasn’t ‘engaged’.  While what I was supposed to be learning could have been interesting (except for math which I detested), it wasn’t.  At least not much of the time.

Because the teachers didn’t make it interesting.  They stood at the front of the class and blathered on and on and on.  They talked at the students.  They droned, usually in a monotone, like robots.  No personality.  No emotion.  No passion.  No excitement.  No storytelling.  No imagination.  No creativity.

What did I do?

Well, I must have paid some attention, because I always passed; but I was usually miles and miles away, daydreaming.  Yes, I did get caught, on more than one occasion, and ended up with detentions, like having to write on the blackboard 1,000 times: “I will pay attention in class from now on”.

No, of course it didn’t work.

My least favourite teacher from all my years of school — public, high school, art college — was my 8th grade math teacher.  He was Swedish and his English was not the best.  He’d been a gym teacher but had an accident which resulted in him having a steel plate in his head.  So gym was out of the question.  How he got picked to teach math is beyond me, but he did.  And it was just my luck to get stuck with him.

High school math was a struggle for me on a good day.  Sadly, for me, there was never a good day with this, particular teacher.  His communication skills were bad.  And he just spat numbers and formulas at us.  The chemistry between us (and I do NOT mean sexual) could NOT have been worse.  I couldn’t understand him, or what he was teaching.  He didn’t even try to help me.  He was unable to change.  I was unable to get it.

You won’t be surprised to know I was failing his classes.  My parents got me a tutor, who I absolutely adored.  When I was with him, I knew all the answers.  When I was in class everything I learned with the tutor was forgotten.  Thank God it wasn’t just me having the problem and half way through the year he was replaced.  Math was never my best subject but, with the help of my tutor, I managed to get by.  Barely.

On the other hand I loved my English teacher all through high school; and I am sure if I’m a writer today, it’s in large part thanks to him.  He gave life to words, they weren’t merely letters on a page.  He taught us how to ‘hear’ the words when we read.  To ‘feel’ them.  He took us to plays, and to the library.  He made everything a story.  We discussed the authors, the setting, the context, the language, the emotions, the reactions, the interactions.

It was magical.

He didn’t just stand at the head of the class and talk.  We sat, together, and discussed and debated and agreed and disagreed.  We formed opinions.  We participated.  He shared his love of language and storytelling with us.  We were ‘infused’ with it; and we developed a passion of our own.

To this day I remember his name.  Mr. Boswell.  And I could paint a picture of him, I see him so vividly.  He seemed old to me at the time.  He was probably in his mid-to-late 30s or early 40s at the most.  He was about 5’10 and very slim.  He had dark, wavy hair and a mustache and he wore glasses.  He wore bow ties, white shirts, tweed jackets and slacks — usually brown.  He was exactly what you might have imagined an English teacher to look like.  At least I think so.  I always pictured him smoking a pipe and sitting in a book-lined room, sipping sherry or brandy or whisky while he enjoyed a book.

There’s nothing I’d like more than to find myself in a conversation with him now.  I think he’d be really happy to know I’m a writer.  I wish he could read, and critique, my work.  I know he’d make it better.

30 thoughts on ““School days, school days, dear old Golden Rule days …”

  1. I also never had an inspiring math teacher…sigh…although like you I was blessed with amazing English teachers (Ms. Olcen, Mrs. Macura). I also had an amazing teacher in Grade 3 (Janet Intscher, Costa Rica Academy) who spent extra time teaching me the difference between American and Canadian spelling before we moved back to Montreal (who knew that Canadians like their ‘u’s?) and I always think about her when I catch a non-Canadian spelling in a Canadian publication 🙂

  2. I had a dreadful maths teacher at “form 5” (grade 10 in the US) level, which was the year we had to sit national exams called School Certificate. I didn’t like maths, and she catered only for the top kids in the class. Every time any of us didn’t understand something, she’d say, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s only worth 2% in the exam.” I wanted to say, “But what if there are 50 things in a year I don’t understand?” Anyway, somehow I managed to scrape through with 50%. I met her in the corridor the next year and she said, “I heard you passed! I’m absolutely amazed”. Nice. This was at a private school my parents paid a lot of money for. I should have complained, but we didn’t do such things in those days.

      • I know! My worst teacher of all was a horrible woman at Form 2 (grade 7 level) at that same school. She was my home room teacher as well as my maths and science teacher. I had been living in the US for two years and had picked up an American accent. On my first day in class, she gave a lecture about how terrible America was and all the awful things it had done. With me sounding like an American, I thought it was particularly hurtful, and other girls looked sideways at me. She was Latvian and her dislike was something to do with her parents in World War II. I was usually a diligent student, but one day hadn’t finished my maths homework because I hadn’t understood it. That day happened to be the one I had a starring role in a school play, performed in the horrible teacher’s classroom for our entire grade. Even though it was in an English period, she suddenly announced, as the play was about to start, that they would have to get someone else for my role, as I would not be appearing. The writer had to step in. Then she made me sit with my back to the class, while the play I should have been in was going on, and do my maths homework. My grandparents, who I was living with at the time while my parents were back overseas, certainly did have something to say about that. My grandad was a career army man, a captain who had been a fearsome warrant officer before that. The teacher was leaving anyway to have a baby, however, so wasn’t punished for her behaviour. These days, we’d probably sue!

      • She should have been punished regardless. My 5th grade home room teacher made a snide remark about Jews when those of us who were Jewish took the High Holidays off. The parents threatened to sue the school and she was forced to apologize in front of the entire class and then her contract was not renewed when the year was finished.

      • Yay for you! Yes, when I think back to what that teacher was like to me, I can’t believe it now. I had some good teachers, too. I won the history prize in grade 11 and my teacher kept my final assignment, he said to show others the standard that could be achieved. About six years later, when I was working as a journalist for a big city paper, I was coincidentally assigned to see him in regard to a story tip. I reminded him he had been my teacher, but he didn’t seem to remember me. Of course, teachers have hundreds of students, and this really put me in my place!

  3. I had my share of bad teachers, but none even come close to my fourth grade teacher. Her assignments were well beyond the expectations of a fourth grader, and she just seemed to live to dole out punishment. I still have writers cramp from all of the punitive “sentences” I had to write that year… which had to be signed by my parent (I really got in trouble when she found out I was forging my Mom’s name! ) 🙂 She was the only teacher who ever put an F on one of my report cards. And it wasn’t just me, because two of my younger sisters also had to go through her, and both of them had similar issues. it’s kinda rude to call a teacher a bitch, but by golly, that’s what she was!

    On the flip side, my junior high English teacher was a ball of fun, and always made the class interesting. He even got some national recognition when he won Disney’s Teacher of the Year Award a couple of years after I moved on to high school!

    • I am amazed at how teachers like your fourth grade teacher keep their jobs, or even get them in the first place; or graduate from teachers’ college.

  4. I’m always stunned when I hear “bad teacher” stories, even though I am well aware they exist. I found teaching to be the most challenging and rewarding and satisfying and … well, I won’t go on … suffice it to say I loved the task. That’s the way school should be for teachers and students , IMHO. My favorite teacher taught Grade 10 geography and instilled in my small-town self a desire to see the world. He would be pleased! 🙂

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  6. I never thought much about how school was taught until I went to college to get my degree in education. We debated this topic constantly, and a large part of our preparation courses was instructional methods. Generally, we felt a silent classroom was not the most effective for learning.

    I think now as a teacher, getting students to work together in groups or with partners is a large part of how I teach. I’ll present an open-ended question and have students discuss it at their table groups. Then we’ll come together and share the fine points of the small group discussion. And it makes sense. In the real world, we need to know how to work with others. I use this method often, and I hope students feel more engaged than when you and I were in school.

    Great post, as always. I think Mr. Boswell would be thrilled to know what a great writer you are.

  7. Somehow I can’t imagine you in detention! 🙂 (or can I?) I only have fond memories or a recollection of two or three teachers. It’s sad or frustrating how much it really does matter how they engage kids.

    • Haha! It wasn’t the only time either :). Oh teachers play a huge role and not that many of them are really inspiring. It is truly a tragedy I think.

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    • Thank you so much. Wgat a contrast there was between those two — not just as teachers, but also as humans. Many, many lessons there — and not all scholastic either 🙂

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