Best teacher ever? You could hear it in their tone

Do you remember that one teacher that had the biggest impact on your life, in and out of the classroom?

T'xer Zhon Kha/The Wausau Daily Herald/AP
Technical ed teacher Mark Pugh, left, tutors Justin Tousignant, 14, as he builds his wood canoe, at Prairie River Middle School in Merrill, Wis., on Thursday, May 1.

For a few years now, I’ve carried this poem by Sharon Olds around in my heart. Every day at school I see examples of the fulfillment of its ancient history and prophesy of the future, if you look at it as a document that could be a record of each educator’s school histories and present school influences.

And I think it has particular poignancy at the end of a school year, as both students and teachers take stock on the meaning of a year-long relationship— the waning of one year’s influence, and auguries of the next school year  in September.

“Mrs. Krikorian” the subject of the poem, is described as an “amiable giantess with the kind eyes.” The poem begins:

She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade,
a known criminal, the new teacher
asked me to stay after school the first day, she said
I've heard about you. She was a tall woman,
with a deep crevice between her breasts,
and a large, calm nose. She said,
This is a special library pass.
As soon as you finish your hour's work—
that hour's work that took ten minutes
and then the devil glanced into the room
and found me empty, a house standing open—
you can go to the library.

There’s more to this poem than can be conveyed here. But I’ve shared enough to position this question: Do you remember your Mrs. Krikorian? 

Can you hear the voice of the teacher in your past who took you in; who looked past your rap sheet and outward appearances, and touched your potential with a knowing look or kind word? Who was the gentle giant or giantess in your life; who gave you extra time in the library? 

To this day, decades later, what I remember most vividly from my own middle school years is the tone of voice of my teachers. 

Mrs. Tapley, Mr. Williamson, Mr. Stevens: they all had a kind of perfect pitch, a resonant tone of voice, stature, and bearing. The effect of their pedagogy and curriculum shows up to varying degrees in my adult writing, math skills, spelling, or geographical literacy. 

OK, long division still confounds me, through no fault of Miss McCormack; I have a good working knowledge of the earth’s important physical features; I can spell pretty good. 

But, what I learned from them is not necessarily the most important memory – a clue as to what I think matters in schools. It was their tone – their attitude and feeling, towards me and towards their academic subject – through which my teachers created an expectation for learning and a deep sense of aspiration. Isn’t this a kind of standards-based learning that, sadly, flies under the radar nowadays?

Good teachers create a positive tone by making children feel cared for, understood, challenged, and appreciated. Of course we also remember their moments of righteous indignation, mock ire, and appropriately-timed withering glances! 

I can still hear Mr. Stevens, my fourth grade teacher, scolding my classmate Vicki for making a sixth trip to the pencil sharpener in order to drop yet another note on her friend Caroline’s desk, instead of paying attention to his lesson on the apostrophe. I do not remember his lesson, per se. But Mr. Stevens somehow made it personal, and that is why I can form the possessive singular. I do not know if Vicki can say the same, but surely she too can remember his tone, and the embedded value it conveyed.

I knew from their tone if my teachers were powerful, or not; knowledgeable, or faking it; sincere, or going through the motions; secure, or insecure. 

Looking back, I know that learning occurred most spontaneously, deeply, and lastingly for me when the tone was in sync with my developmental timing – and allowances were also being made for the unique tenor of the given day. It was then that I allowed myself to be taught – or conspired with my teachers to learn, in spite of myself.

I’ve come to feel that this is the fundamental transaction of good schools as well as good teachers: creating an atmosphere in which students can learn because their teachers know them intimately, have their trust, and ingeniously adapt information and skills in a way that is authentic. It would be my humble privilege to think that I have effected a few of these transactions in my experience as a teacher and administrator. 

I can be certain of precipitating many individual breakthroughs (“So that’s what that poem means!”); confident of training young writers in some key skills (even punctuating the possessive plural!), and hopeful that I’ve recruited, hired, and supported teachers whose gift for getting the tone right assured some future grateful memories of joyous learning. 

It would be my tribute to my fourth grade teacher 

Mr. Stevens to think that I had, in fact, struck the right tone for just a few of my students and colleagues, just as he did for me. It’s my standard for considering myself a teacher.

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