As I continue the “Teacher as Ally” badge, one of the requirements was to ask three people, it didn’t matter who they were, about a teacher that made a difference in their life. I ended up asking a few of the teachers I’ve had in my life, as well as I student I shared classes with in elementary and middle school. We’ll start with Mrs. O.
Mrs. O is actually one of my current teachers, but she primarily instructs in a middle school. I have had the privilege of observing her classroom this semester, and have quickly grown to love the way she interacts with students, so I had to know about the teachers that she had looked up to back when she was behind a desk, and not in the front. While Mrs. O had several examples of teachers who were influential in her life, what stood out to her was teachers who were kind, loving, caring, compassionate… but knew how to “play hardball” when they needed to.
Mrs. B was my High School geography, economics, and history teacher. She had this way of connecting to her students through humor so that it seemed like everyone in our (very small) class loved her. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to speak in person. But here are a few things she told me: The teacher that came to mind was one of her high school teachers, one Mr. Bell. Her experience, like many of my fellow English major’s experiences, was that of someone who went into the class with low expectations. She didn’t like history. What seemed to make the difference in her case, was both the encouragement, “I am actually really good at this history thing,” as well as the teaching style. Her prior social studies teachers were the kind that we all have nightmares about now, but used to be commonplace. Answer these questions from the book. When did this happen? Dates. Names. Scan-tron tests. But Mr. Bell taught, “like a college professor.” Lecture, discussion, essays for tests. She says that this was super challenging, but that this “inquiry” style of teaching helped to draw out what he called “a natural understanding of history,” for Mrs. B. He pushed her in ways she hadn’t been pushed, and took (history) classes she wouldn’t have taken.
Finally, my friend T and I both shared an incredible teacher ally in a history class in middle school. Like Mrs. B, he excelled at bringing humor into the classroom. I don’t know of any student in our wretched class (it was rumored that teachers told horror stories about us to subsequent years — “Don’t be like them!”) who didn’t love Mr. H. But T’s experience took it a bit farther. T fell on the autism spectrum, and in his case this manifested as what one might call social awkwardness. He really had a hard time fitting in, and middle school is brutal to those of us who don’t fit the mold. But T also had a hard time finding teachers who could connect with him. T loved comics. And Mr. H went out of his way to find connection with T. Once he found what made him excited, he shared some of his own comics with him. Many of these comics, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, for example, were very “mature” in terms of middle school. But not only did Mr. H trust him with this material, but he also trusted T with some of his valued possessions. As T teared up while telling me this, he said that Mr. H showed him how non-conventional media could be art. Comics, films, video-games all had deeper stories to tell. And Mr. H helped T to connect to things that he understood and loved. He identified him as an individual, not just a student. He “took a kid who was very difficult, and just kind of let him do his thing.”