On Teachers.

by amy

Did you have an important teacher in your life? What was it about him or her that really informed or inspired or encouraged you? Over the next year, the NPR Ed team will be running a weekly series called 50 Great Teachers. Today’s installment begins with Socrates. I think this will be an interesting series to follow.

I have been fortunate enough to have a handful of teachers over the years from whom I really learned a lot. And I have had my share of teachers that were borderline unstable (though most of those came in my post-secondary school experience).

There were even some that stand out just because they seemed to genuinely like their jobs. Like Mr. Kessler, my seventh grade Civics teacher (do they even teach that anymore?) who facilitated weekly “Jeopardy” games in class using course content and current events to generate questions. The memorable part wasn’t the game, but the fact that top performers each week would earn prizes from Mr. Kessler’s large stockpile of travel toiletries that he had swiped from various hotels and motels on his travels. Answer a question correctly, and he would toss a treat your way—maybe a shower cap, or a sewing kit, or a miniature bar soap. It was hilarious and quirky—just like the teacher himself.

But it wasn’t until my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Jones, that I really became excited about learning for learning’s sake. Just through her example, she taught me the value of living a life full of intellectual pursuits. I first met Mrs. Jones the summer after 9th grade when another mother tipped my parents off about a summer writing workshop she was running at her house. The other parent knew from her daughter that I loved to write, and thought it would be a good opportunity for me. My parents signed me up and for a week I went every day to Mrs. Jones’ house to work on creative writing projects. Even still, I look back on it as one of the most formative experiences of my education. Her house was filled with books, and as I sat around her dining room table that overlooked a picturesque pond, I filled my notebook with poems and short stories and writing exercises of all kinds. I learned loop writing, mind mapping, and a variety of techniques that Mrs. Jones was still learning herself. She quoted from authors with whom I was not yet familiar, and her face would light up when she discussed the process of writing and getting something to be “just so.”

When I finally had Mrs. Jones as a teacher in school, she assigned labor-intensive assignments like Reading Response Journals, which were detailed reports on all aspects of a text (character, plot, symbols, historical context, etc.). Classmates complained, but I was meticulous in my focus. I have held on to those assignments all of these years (!)—maybe because of the hard work that they represented. Other students laughed because she often talked about her time at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference (just because it sounded like a silly name to unenlightened teenagers); it would not be until years later that I realized what an honor it was to be chosen to participate in the annual event. Back when I started graduate school, I sent her a letter to the school at which she had been teaching to thank her for inspiring me as a reader, a writer, and a thinker—but the letter was returned without a forwarding address. I hope someday I am able to reconnect with her!

Tonight I am going with my friend K. to hear Amy Poehler (whose book was just released) in conversation with her high school English teacher, Kathy Dalton. I can’t wait—will definitely report back on that.