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My Favorite Teacher 'Showed Me How to Take Calculated Risks'

Editor's Note: As I wrote in Part One, our minds are obviously on COVID-19, not on our favorite teachers.  I've curated many useful resources about coping with school closures at The Best Advice On Teaching K-12 Online (If We Have To Because Of The Coronavirus) - Please Make More Suggestions! and will soon be publishing a series of posts here where teachers will be sharing their experiences in this new environment (see Do You Want to Write About Your Experience Teaching Online After School Closures?). Please consider contributing your thoughts.

In this time of crisis, reading and thinking about non-coronavirus topics can be a welcome diversion now and then.  I put thinking about and reading about our favorite teachers into that "welcome diversion" category.

 

 

(This is the third post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

Who was your favorite teacher when you were attending school and why was she/he your favorite?

 

Part One shared responses from Elizabeth Villanueva, Jessica Levine, Betty Cárdenas, and Jenny Vo.  You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with the four of them on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Antoinette Perez, Cindy Garcia, Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski, Shaeley Santiago, Rita Platt, Jen Schwanke, and Barry Saide offered their memories.

Today, Jeryl-Ann Asaro, Jenny Edwards, Adrienne Donovan, Dennis Griffin Jr., and Dr. John Almarode contribute thoughts on their favorites.

Changing careers

Now retired, Jeryl-Ann Asaro (Jeri) loved her job as a middle school English teacher. As an educational writer for www.inspiringteachers.com, she specialized in offering guidelines to novice teachers. Jeri is also a contributor to the book Classrooms that Spark and the NJASCED Report on Professional Communities (PLC) and Character Education. She has taught at four levels—elementary, middle, high school, and postgraduate, but she found that teaching adolescent students was her true calling:

I had a crush on a boy in 6th grade named Alex B. The feeling was mutual, and hiding behind a locker door, we experienced a first kiss together. Of course, the assistant principal caught us, but that situation cemented our closeness. Romance quickly fizzled, but we became true friends. What I learned about Alex in those early years was that he was the middle brother of three sons, and that his father had died when he was young. It was obvious to me that he loved and respected his mother, who worked to support her three boys. As a publishing assistant, she was a "full-time working mom" long before that was a norm in society. She taught her boys to be independent human beings who worked together while mom was at the office. From these life situations, Alex became a compassionate, self-sufficient, adolescent boy, and he understood that women were humans and not objects. He became my friend for years and years to come.

Fast forward three years to freshman year. I took journalism as an elective. Guess who was my teacher? Mrs. B., the mother of Alex! In her 40s, she had put aside her publishing career and gone back to school to become an English teacher. She was now the journalism teacher and newspaper adviser. I suspect  she made that major life leap as it was best for her sons, but she also loved the new work. Alex and I were still "buddies" and spent quite a bit of time together with other friends. Between the school and family connection, I quickly bonded with Mrs. B. and I knew her class would always be my favorite. In a time of teacher-centered lectures, she taught a student-centered, hands-on class where we learned the "5Ws & the H" and the basics of what would later be called, graphic design! I couldn't wait to enter our classroom every day!

By the end of freshman year, I had aced the journalism class, but better yet, I had been named the youngest newspaper editor in our high school's history. Mrs. B. gave me more responsibility as her editor-in-chief. As this decade was before the development of desktop publishing, much of the work was done by hand, and I spent hours at the printer's office doing what I grew quickly to love.

As a teacher, Mrs. B. was different because she had real-world experience in publishing and she had a firm understanding of all I was being taught. On top of that, she was also a natural and patient teacher. With a great newspaper staff, that slowly increased in size, due to the love all of the students had for Mrs. B., we collaborated to revamp that newspaper into an award winner by the end of my senior year! What an inspiring experience to have in high school. Besides helping me find a passion, Mrs. B. taught me many life skills. I learned communication, cooperation, commitment, decisionmaking, accountability, delegation, and all the skills that make up a leader!

Fast forward four years. It was the 1970s, and women were still mostly becoming secretaries, nurses, and teachers. I went the safe way and I graduated from college with a degree in English education and a minor in communications. Upon graduation, I felt a calling to see where my love of publishing would take me. I spent the next 23 years enjoying the fast-paced life of magazine and advertising production. Mrs. B. had opened a world to me that I wouldn't ever have known existed.

In a sense, history repeated itself. At the beginning of my 40s, I realized I wanted to "make a difference" in the lives of others, especially adolescent-aged children. Through my own son's middle school experiences, I realized what an impact good teachers can have in the lives of their students and I wanted to be "Mrs. B." to someone else. At 44, I left my lucrative career in publishing and I took a charter school position as a middle school teacher. Choosing to take that risk had me following a similar path as Mrs. B., 30 years earlier. Soon thereafter, I reconnected with her and her son, Alex. I let her know the path my life had taken and the WHYs! She soon learned that if it wasn't for her, I wouldn't have spent my life enjoying two wonderful careers.

Mrs. B. positively influenced me. Now, by trade, I am a middle school English teacher. My decision to change careers in my 40s was a choice that went on to make a positive difference in my son's life, my family's life, and also the lives of my students. For seven years, I was the adviser to our school's literary magazine, and with the help of my real-world experience in publishing, that magazine went on to earn national acclaim for seven years. From my classes, over 1,000 pieces of student work were published for authentic audiences in the Suburban Trends, Time Magazine for Kids, Teen, Inc., and other publications, too. One of my proudest moments occurred when one of my students won a national writing contest sponsored by the Library of Congress. Mrs. B. showed me how to have the guts to take calculated risks. Now, I love spending my days with the creative and fickle minds of young teens. I know that I'm shaping the life of an adolescent child and I'm proud to be in that role. As cliché as this may sound, first-rate teachers DO make a difference in the lives of their students.

Mrs. B. changed my life in all the best of ways, and she has earned my favorite teacher award. As American historian Henry Adams once said, "A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops."

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"He never told us what to do"

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? (ASCD), Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students (ASCD), and Research on Habits of Mind (2014, Institute for Habits of Mind International):

Mr. McRae was my homeroom teacher during the four years I attended Harrison High School in Evansville, Ind. He shepherded all of us through our tumultuous high school years. He knew who we were dating and he always asked how our weekend was. He watched us in our budding romances and he gently inquired about how things were going.

Mr. McRae was safe. He had a demeanor that communicated that we knew we could tell him anything and he would keep it in confidence. He never told us what to do. Instead, he asked gentle questions and let us come up with the answers. He reflected back what we said, and we knew he had heard us.

Mr. McRae cared deeply about all of us. We could tell by his body posture and by his smile. We confided things in him that we would not dare to tell our parents or even a friend.

In addition to being a caring and kind person, Mr. McRae was a brilliant teacher. When he spoke, we all were mesmerized. He told us story after story and made the content come alive. I can still remember things I learned from him.

Mr. McRae knew our abilities intimately, and he always guided us to the right classes. When we had a question about whether or not to take a class, he would advise us wisely and correctly. 

I have stayed in contact with Mr. McRae through the years, calling him when I was visiting my home town. He always seemed glad to hear from me and he always asked me what I was doing. He seemed interested, and we would talk for a long time.

When Mr. McRae retired, he supervised student-teachers and he continued his career by serving as a substitute teacher in the school district for many more years. In one of our conversations, he said he had been voted Most Loved Substitute Teacher when he was in his 80s.

Mr. McRae always came to our high school reunions.  He continued to be interested in what we were doing. He always remembered our last conversation and asked us about what we had previously discussed, even if it was several years ago. If we had told him about taking a trip, he asked us how it went. If we were starting a new job, he asked us about that.

I am grateful to Mr. McRae not only for what he taught us but also for who he was and how he treated us as students. As a teacher, I have always sought to emulate him.

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"Ms. Totten changed the trajectory of my life"

Adrienne Donovan is a teacher at Rockland High School, Massachusetts, where she has spent the past nine years instructing a variety of subjects such as: Spanish and visual art before settling into her final role of family consumer-science instructor. She lives in an old Victorian in town, with her loving husband, rambunctious twins, and two geriatric Jack Russell Terriers. She reports life is good, especially when someone else makes her dinner:

My favorite teacher, by a long shot, was my high school English teacher, the dreaded and decrepit Ms. Totten. She was a hallway legend. Tough, mean, unrelenting, formidable, or so they said. When I arrived to my first class, palms drenched, flop sweat on my brow, nervous, fearful, and apprehensive, what I discovered was—a dedicated, self-disciplined, educational professional. I quickly found rigor replaced toughness, exceptional command of respect replaced meanness, dedication to the craft of teaching and devotion to the learning of her subject replaced unrelenting formidableness.

Teaching diagramming sentences to high schoolers takes intestinal fortitude. Ms. Totten had the stomach of an Iron Maiden. Moreover, through her exceptional instruction, she taught me to love and respect the English language, in all its intricacies, rules, and mechanics. She introduced the value of a thesaurus; how to write persuasive, argumentative, and informational essays; and how grammar can make or break your writing. Her rigor taught me that in failure, the most learning occurs. Her instruction never waivered; she never called out sick. Every class was a learning opportunity and, even though she was well into the twilight of her career when I was her student, I will always remember her ramrod-straight posture, the bonfire of intelligence in glacier blue eyes, and knarled hands wrapped around large piles of papers, carefully slipping the work of her students into an ancient correcting bag.

Through her purposeful instruction and ceaseless dedication, she inspired me to be a better writer, a better student, and to be a lifelong learner. In one year, Ms. Totten changed the trajectory of my life. It is her influence that I am forever grateful for, and to this day, it still informs how I teach my own students.

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"They made me feel connected to them"

Dennis Griffin Jr. serves as the principal of Brown Deer Elementary School in Wisconsin. He has seven years of experience as a middle school educator and is entering his sixth year as an administrator. He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in educational leadership at Cardinal Stritch University. Dennis believes all students will be successful in school when they develop relationships with educators that value their gift, cultures, and individuality:

I can honestly say that I do not have one favorite teacher. The teachers who were my favorites were the ones that acknowledged that I had a talent that would one day transcend the walls of the school. They took the time to give me feedback and to always challenge me. They acknowledged my talents but did not shy away from giving me the necessary feedback to grow as a learner and push me out of my comfort zone. They made me feel connected to them, and in return, I never wanted to disappoint them.

On the occasions that they did have to hold me to an expectation, I wasn't always a perfect kid; I felt miserable on the inside and wanted to find a way to make amends with them. I later found out that it hurt them just as much, if not more. My teachers let me know that I was standing on the shoulders of greatness and that they were passing the torch to me to open doors for others in the future.

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"Teacher credibility"

Dr. John Almarode is the Sarah Miller Luck Endowed Professor of Education and an assistant professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education at James Madison University. John is also the co-director of James Madison University's Center for STEM Education and Outreach and co-editor of Teacher Educator's Journal:

I remember the day as if it were yesterday.  In fact, if I close my eyes and think about those initial moments, I can recall specific details about my first visit to Ms. Cross' classroom, Room 30.  Ms. Cross was my 6th grade science teacher, and, to this day the teacher and person that has had the greatest influence on my personal and professional career.  Her welcoming and engaging classroom, paired with her approach to supporting us in "figuring out" how the world works, led to both an appreciation and deep understanding of 6th grade science content and processes.  The powerful learning experiences in her classroom (e.g., the egg-float lab, acting out transverse and longitudinal waves, drawing the water cycle, taking care of the class fish, creating a biome box, etc.) shaped my interest in science and my purpose and passion for becoming a science teacher.  

Let me be clear.  As a 6th grader, I could not describe the nature of Ms. Cross' classroom as I have just done in the previous paragraph.  As an 11-year-old middle schooler, I was sure of five things: her classroom was safe, welcoming, fun, made me want to learn science, and resulted in me learning science.  Today, as an educational researcher and someone who teaches teachers how to teach science, I can look back on my experiences in Room 30 and identify the characteristics that made Ms. Cross the greatest influence on my personal and professional career.  

The list of teacher characteristics that research has associated with positive student learning outcomes exceeds the space limitations and the scope of this blog. So, I am going to focus on one specific characteristic that is getting renewed attention in educational research and is exemplified by Ms. Cross: teacher credibility (see Hattie, 2012).  Ms. Cross had high credibility with me, my classmates, and students throughout her entire teaching career.  Although the concept of teacher credibility has been around for a while (see Bandura, 1997), its influence on learning has recently been captured by researchers like John Hattie.  In his Visible Learning research, John Hattie found that having high teacher credibility more than doubles the rate of learning in the classroom (Hattie, 2012).  Ms. Cross exemplified the four components of teacher credibility: competence, dynamism, immediacy, and trustworthiness.

  • Ms. Cross devoted significant time in her own learning to ensure that she was knowledgeable about the science content and processes in her curriculum—we believed her, too!  This is competence.

  • In her sharing of this knowledge, she was enthusiastic about every aspect of science and convincing of the value or relevance of the learning to our lives.  She possessed dynamism.

  • Ms. Cross was warm and immediately responsive to our needs.  She did not teach science to students.  She taught students science.  She acted with immediacy.

  • Finally, she was reliable and caring.  There was no doubt that Ms. Cross had the best interests of her students in mind.  She was trustworthy.

At a time when I needed a teacher like Ms. Cross the most, I found myself sitting in Room 30.  At age 11, I knew that the experiences and interactions I had with Ms. Cross were significant, but I had to wait to be able to put the significance into words.  She is the driving force and inspiration behind everything I do, including the experiences and interactions I have with my own students.  I strive to be competent, dynamic, immediate, and trustworthy.  This is something we all can do.  Thanks to Ms. Cross, I know what it looks like and feels like.

Oh, and I forgot to mention, my two children, Tessa and Jackson now call her Grandma Sally.

 

References

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.

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Thanks to Jeri, Jenny, Adrienne, Dennis, and John for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It's titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn't include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the "answers" category found in the sidebar.

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Look for Part Four in a few days—that column will feature commentaries from present-day students.

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