Writing about Teachers Who Made a Difference

I recently read Mike Rose’s post about his high school English teacher. It is a beautiful piece that captures the ineffable moment 40 years ago that Rose was ready–he did not know it, of course, at the time–to dig deeper into literature and the pushing and prodding he got from Jack McFarland, his young English teacher. McFarland’s teaching, Rose said,  changed “the direction of my life.”

Rose’s post reminded me of letters I had received from former high school students, those I had trained as teachers in Washington, D.C., and from doctoral advisees at Stanford. A glow of satisfaction would come over me whenever I read such  letters that asserted my influence in their lives. I suspect that Jack McFarland might have experienced such a glow when reading Mike Rose’s post. As I read the compliments and how much the student attributed to me in shaping his or her life’s work, however, a small doubt, surely no more than a speck, flashed over me. That speck of a doubt had to do with the tricks that our memories play on us in selectively remembering what we want to remember.

For example, I cannot forget many teenagers and young adults who I did not, perhaps could not, reach. That is, students who sat in class (or attended sporadically) and sailed through the course without ever connecting to the content I taught, the questions I asked, the projects I assigned. Seldom did any of those students write me a note years later. So I might have been a fine teacher for some students who wrote me years later but I had to remind myself that there were many others who saw me as, well, just another teacher whose assignments and class activities ranged from inane to boring and had to be tolerated to get the high school diploma or the doctorate. That is one reason for the speck of doubt.

Another reason for doubting my memory is a tendency to give credit to others you admire and respect as human beings for your accomplishments. We give credit to parents, siblings, dear friends, and yes, teachers. Much of it is deserved. And much of it is sheer gratitude for the shared experience. So doubt arises also from the gracious but nonetheless false attribution of results to someone else.

Having given two reasons why I enjoy those glowing letters written by former students but still entertain doubts about whether I made the difference in their lives that they attribute to me, I want to briefly mention a teacher I had who I believe did shape my thoughts and actions at a particular point in my life. Sounds like a contradiction but bear with me.

While I did have elementary and secondary teachers who, at different times, inspired and motivated me, I am thinking of the time when I went to graduate school. I was in my late-30s with a wife and family and wanted to get a Ph.D in order to become a district superintendent.

In an earlier post I have written about David Tyack and his influence upon me as a scholar, teacher, and human being while I was a graduate student and, later, as his colleague for two decades (see “Becoming A Superintendent: A Personal Odyssey, February 9, 2011).

Now I would like to remember Jim March. From Jim March, I took courses on leadership and organizations. Eventually,I asked Jim to serve on my doctoral committee.

At first, I found Jim intellectually intimidating. He was a theorist of organizations who drew from the disciplines of psychology, sociology, and political science. By the time I met him, he had authored books with Herbert Simon and Richard Cyert, giants in the fields of organizational sciences and statistics. Jim was also a poet and a wonderful conversationalist. Although March had never taught in public schools, he knew them as organizations and helped me make sense of nearly two decades of teaching and administering programs in school districts. From Jim, I  learned the importance of seeing organizations from multiple points of view, of learning to live with uncertainty, of the tenacious hold that rationalism has upon both policymakers and practitioners, and of understanding that ambiguity, conflict, and randomness is the natural order of organizations. Those two years at Stanford, working closely with Tyack and March turned out to be first-rate preparation for the next seven years I served as a superintendent. And life ever after.

Am I over-attributing what I have achieved to particular teachers? Perhaps. But so what.

The points I make are straightforward:  What we learn in and out of school that sticks with us comes from  an intellectual and emotional joining of minds and hearts with adults who we respect and admire when we are ready to take in who they are and what they teach. Although we live in a culture that worships the independent individual, we learn that each of us is  beholden to others–family, friends, and, yes, teachers from infancy to the day that the coffin is lowered into the ground. We learn that we stand on the shoulders of others. Giving credit to those people who have helped us along the way, even attributing to them powers that rest within ourselves, simply reminds us that we are dependent upon others.

1 Comment

Filed under how teachers teach

One response to “Writing about Teachers Who Made a Difference

  1. Judy Yaron

    As teachers we don’t really know the impact of our words, our looks or gestures on the many many students, who come and go day after day year after year. Most of what we give to our students goes unacknowledged . The belief that if some twenty years later a student thinks fondly of something he got from me, whether he contacts me or not, is what keeps me going.

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