The Covid pandemic has caused disruptions and heartaches in so many professions, with teaching certainly near the top of the list. As a proud member of this noble calling for exactly fifty years, I wanted to express my appreciation for all the Great Teachers who inspired me to join their ranks. I see that we do have a National Teacher Appreciation Day, but it’s “the Tuesday of the first full week in May.” Really? Why pick an anonymous Tuesday and why not at least hold it on the same date every year? It seems like some dumb committee picked an utterly forgettable day to honor such utterly unforgettable figures in our early lives.
Well, here’s my tribute on this third Monday in February. I hope it makes you remember a favorite great teacher of yours.
Several years ago I taught a workshop for college seniors pursuing a career of teaching English in high school. I would like to report that the group was both large and talented; unfortunately, it was neither. Sadly, it seems that the very best students—many of whom used to dedicate themselves to a teaching career—have taken flight from that extinct job market and have migrated instead to the preserve of the least endangered species on campus: The Business Major. Thus, the number of bright CPAs and MBAs may be up, but in the world of education, the Mr. Chips are down.
What has caused this plunge? One cause may be that many students simply have never taken a course from an extraordinary teacher whose very presence used to inspire others to follow in the same profession. What qualities define “Great Teachers" who seem to have been born in a cradle of chalk dust? I believe we honor them because they are well known for what they know well, and because they are deeply admired for what they admire deeply.
First, Great Teachers always know their subjects well, devoting a lifetime to being students of them. But they also know their students well, studying them almost as diligently as they do their specialty. Great teaching fundamentally consists of constructing a bridge from the subject taught to the student learning it. Both sides of that bridge must be surveyed with equal care if the subject matter of the teacher is to connect with the gray matter of the student.
Second, Great Teachers transcend simply knowing their subjects and students well; they also admire both deeply. They care so much about their subject—be it Civil War or Civil Engineering, Aerospace or Arrowsmith, Physics or Phys Ed -- that through a mystical synthesis of intellect, enthusiasm, and imagination, they perform the ultimate creative act of resurrection by making that subject live again in all students sensitive enough to appreciate the gift being bestowed.
Great Teachers deeply admire their students in the same way that parents admire their children when they first learn to walk. Parents sense the gallantry of their child in his or her wobbly but determined attempt to defy gravity. Great Teachers admire the gallantry of their students as they defy the odds by mastering material that so recently had made them totter, fall, and cry out for aid. Like all parents, these teachers are humbled by the sense of renewal whenever their students learn. They know that this has all been done before and is forever to be done again, long after their individual lessons and lives have ended.
This sense of renewal should make all teachers aware that the occupation most similar to theirs is farming. We teachers cultivate our particular crops in the fall and harvest them in the spring. We too boast of the sprouts which burst into vibrant bloom and sigh over those that wither on the vine, believing (like the farmer) that luck had too much to do with the blooms and our own failure with the blights. Since no herbicide has yet been developed to control Ignorance, Shallowness, and Inexperience, teachers all still weeding them out student by student.
The rewards that accompany this nurturing keep teachers in the risky business of perpetuating culture just as surely as those same rewards keep farmers perpetuating agriculture. We teachers are a wholesome group, but we desperately need to be increased, as we once automatically were, by the finest young minds available. So let’s hope that in the near future the universities will be releasing a larger and stronger crop of education majors. A society blighted by a drought of Great Teachers soon finds itself in danger of raising nothing but blooming idiots.