You could combine all the principals, superintendents, counselors, curriculum directors, lunch ladies, school board members, and librarians into one dynamic, high-paid, superhuman and they still wouldn’t have the impact of a single great teacher.
Deep down, I’ve always known this. When graduates visit their alma mater, it’s never to see the superintendent or the curriculum director; it’s that favorite teacher or coach. I’ve watched fifty-year-olds become children again in the presence of their favorite teachers. Even some of the most successful folks in the world, powerful people who are on a first-name basis with other powerful people, can’t bring themselves to call their beloved fourth-grade teacher by her first name.
How do they do it?
How, in a world full of good teachers, do a few impact so many?
Well, I think I know how they do it. They don’t just teach kids, they reach kids. They’re also a little bit crazy.
Mr. Lake was the first teacher I loved. He taught fifth grade. Prior to Mr. Lake, my teachers had all been female, white, and mostly old. They were kindly, except for one who could be as mean as a snake. I liked them well enough, but Mr. Lake was different. Obviously, he was male. At that time, other than the principal and the custodian, the educators in my little world were female. Mr. Lake was also African-American. Fifth grade was the year our country school integrated, and Mr. Lake was the first black educator I encountered. Unlike the matronly teachers I’d had before, he was also a stylish dresser who wore bright socks and white shoes. He shot hoops at recess and spun Marvin Gaye and Fifth Dimension 45's on the school’s phonograph. Once, just before Christmas, we shoved the desks out of the way and danced.
But none of that would’ve mattered had Mr. Lake not pulled my desk alongside his when he realized I couldn’t see the board. Because of the extra help he gave me, I started getting B’s instead of C’s. By Christmas, I didn’t like Mr. Lake anymore. I loved him. I wanted to be him. I got white shoes for Christmas so I could look like him. I became Mr. Lake's shrimpy, pale, white-shoe wearing, visually-impaired Mini-Me.
Fortunately, in high school and college there were more great ones. Mr. Carrier treated us like adults instead of kids. Dr. Boles sat on his desk with his legs folded lotus-style and cracked jokes while he taught management. On the first day of class, Dr. Lovett said grades didn’t matter, so she was giving everyone an A, provided we showed up prepared to discuss the topics. Because of them, I developed an idea of the kind of teacher I wanted to become.
And remember, I said those special teachers are also a little bit crazy. Crazy helps. Years ago, Richard Mulligan played an escaped mental patient who becomes a school’s outstanding teacher. Here’s a clip from the movie, aptly titled, Teachers.
But crazy, doesn’t mean they do crazy things. I had a teacher who called himself Space Turkey. He walked on desks and said outrageous things. He was crazy, but he was a terrible teacher. By crazy, I mean the willingness to step out and try new things, or try old things in new ways. I’m talking about the high school teacher who turned me on to chess, then turned me on to poetry. I’m talking about people like my friend Tom, a shop teacher who would fire up his BBQ grill on Wednesday nights and invite kids to come work on projects and eat hot dogs. Soon, kids were enrolled in shop who would’ve never been there before. I’m talking about Bob, an art teacher who never turned away a student, even when his classes had forty kids or more. Once he had them, he always found a way to make them love art. I’m talking about Mike, an auto body teacher who allowed his best students to drive the hot rods he restored as a hobby. I’m talking about colleagues I would’ve paid to watch teach, like Robin, Sheryl, Deb, Norma, Jimmy, Susan, Greg, and Janie. Though I don’t get to see them teach, I hope I’m talking about my kids, Cody, Lynnea, Alison, and Kelcy.
It’s Teacher Appreciation Day. Is there a crazy educator in your past who made the difference? A hero who reached you? Who made you feel you could do anything? Feel free to share your stories below or on my Facebook page.
Thanks for reading!