Yarmouth, Maine — Did you ever return to your old school and find the buildings and teachers considerably smaller in both size and stature from what you remembered? For students of Gordon Corbett, a sixth-grade science teacher at Yarmouth Middle School in Maine, neither his size (6 feet, 2 inches, 220 pounds) nor his stature ("Anyone who doesn't love kids shouldn't be teaching, it's that simple") will ever appear small.
Mr. Corbett, the second of nine children, never planned to be a teacher. But when a career with the Navy as an oceanographer was cut short, he decided to attend college. He completed a four-year degree at the University of Maine and accepted a teaching spot at Yarmouth, saying, "I'll give teaching a try for a year." Twelve years later he's still there, and the only difference in his attitude is that he tries to give 120 percent rather than just the 100 percent he did when he first came. "My first guiding principle as a teacher was to remember the good and the bad teachers I had and try to be one of the good ones, " Mr. Corbett says. His philosophy of teaching can be summed up neatly in a Chinese proverb taken to heart. "I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."
And if you were to visit, or, more aptly, follow, his class of sixth-graders, you would see him put this philosophy into practice. When he teaches the Doppler effect, the class doesn't discuss the variations in sound as a "train" approaches a given point, reaches it, and then passes by; they becomem the train, running down the hall past his door while he rings a bell. Or if ocean currents and wireless communication are the topics, what better way to present the subject matter than to have them view it the way a navigator on the Titanic would.
"I try to incorporate for my students great events from history, where every detail is important in re-enacting a fascinating drama from life. The lesson relates to their whole personalities and motivates them to see the subject matter in a very positive way."
When dealing with discipline problems, which he sees as often being family problems brought to school, Mr. Corbett responds on the basis that a problem is real to the child. He tries to establish a bond of sympathetic understanding based on the child's perception.
As any teacher in elementary or secondary education today knows, this means a special sensitivity to children from a single- parent home.
"In a divorce a child is torn and feels they've caused their parents divorce. I find I must work with the parents as well as let the child know I understand their situation. Often, I find the single parent is looking for support and will be responsive and receptive."
Proud of his wife and two daughters, Mr. Corbett makes sure that when he is dealing with a child from a troubled or broken home he sees the teacher's life as part of a whole. He includes his family in his discussions with the class. This visibility prevents undue attachment to him that would be impossible and disruptive for him to satisfy. Students will often stop over to his house, and they are made welcome, but "they know there is a clear distinction between my personal life and my teaching life," he says.
In dealing with every teacher's nemesis, TV, he strives to have students articulate the difference between what they think are good shows and bad shows. Just telling them or making a decision for them is unrealistic. He is convinced they know when they are watching something that is worthwhile and something that is just a waste of time. As a teacher he can let them tell one another what are good shows to watch and begin to establish guidelines from the positive values of their own experience, as well as his own.