Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Teaching Matters: What's the Square Root of Inspiration?

Former Loveland student Todd Huntley
serving in Afghanistan in 2006.
We didn't teach him to shoot;
but teachers shape lives in many ways.
I've been thinking a lot about standardized testing since I retired from teaching in 2008. Several of the big names in education reform believe more testing is the solution. Since they've rarely taught, I don't believe they even understand what the problem is.

Most teachers I know don't think focusing on testing is making education better.

Neither do I. 

So I put a question out on Facebook for former students, asking them to tell me about teachers they felt made a difference. Their comments were excellent--and yet represent only a thin sliver of the story of U. S. education, coming only from students of the Loveland City Schools, and only from those who had me in seventh or eighth grade. 

Still, these examples make me proud of what ordinary men and women accomplish every day in America's classrooms.

I should point out that I told former students I wouldn't use anything they said about me (you know, names changed to protect the innocent, and all). Josh Nutgrass couldn't resist, saying, "john viall is the first name that comes to mind or mrs. miranda cuz she was hot hehehe lol[.]" 

Okay, Mr. Nutgrass has a good eye for the attractive female form and I must agree; Mrs. Miranda was a very fine teacher.

Pat Treadway mentioned an old friend of mine, a former college football player, an imposing gentleman, and a man of great integrity, too. Pat recalls: "Mr. Battle. His no-nonsense attitude and toughness was a scary thing as a kid. I look back and realize it did a lot of good for me. He also provided quality entertainment when he saw any type of bullying or minor vandalism. I'm sure he made a few kids pee their pants a little."

Josh jumped back in with all caps: "O YEAH MR BATTLE 'ASSUME THE POSITION' OR MR MCCOY!!!"

I'm not sure which "Mr. McCoy" Josh meant, because we had three, or if he ever had to do pushups for Mr. Battle after getting in trouble, and Josh certainly wasn't the type to be bullying anyone. But the words, "assume the position," uttered in Mr. Battle's deep baritone must have sent shudders up and down the spines of any bully or troublemaker who ever crossed his path at Loveland Junior High. (Later renamed: Loveland Middle School.)

Natalie Golliher cited Mr. Battle, as well, and if you can measure this kind of impact with a standardized test, I'd like to know how. She explained: 
Mr. Battle helped me get through a lot he gave me tough love when he found out I was struggling with an eating disorder everyday for weeks he walked me through the lunch line made me get a healthy meal and sat down with me and made me eat it helped with gym class being my next period after lunch so I couldn't get out from under his eagle eye lol
We happened to have a fantastic choir director at our school, a man named Shawn Miller, and I used to sit and listen to his choir perform or go to plays he put on as director, and marvel at how he was able to coax out the talents of so many kids. 

Kate Altieri (left, in costume for the musical Seussical), a senior at Loveland High today, explained his impact:

[Mr. Miller]...doesn't just help you with music but he can also help you when you are...[in]need. Having six years with mr.miller ive learned so much about myself and of course music. He is the reason I decided to major in music education in college at northern Kentucky in the fall of 2012. He has been a big impact on my life and I've never worked with such a man who is dedicated to seven choirs, ( a boys, girls, two mixed choirs, a middle school show choir, a high school show choir and a high school top choir called chorale) even with such a busy schedule he still makes time for his family with havin every weekend dedicated to show choir he still puts his family first. I want to be like Shawn miller but the girl version of course :) he is an amazing man and an inspiring one at that too.

Kelly Harris decided to talk about an industrial arts teacher he had at Loveland High School: 
Mr. Jim the reason my dad had me add[ed] an addition onto our house during the summer of my Junior/Senior year in high school! I have done so many home mechanics by myself that I have never needed to hire a contractor!!! I have completely rewired a house that was built in 1920, replaced roofs, completely tore out plumbing and replaced with new and even hooked up to county water as well.
Valerie Lynn Daugherty mentioned several educators who made a difference for her:
Oh there are so many... After you John [that's me] Mr Berkoff was awesome.. You both kept history interesting and fun. Doug Bush was another one of my favorites after he left I quit band which was my senior year. Mr Rich was fun but tough. Mr Miller is why I did show choir he is like Mr. Shew on Glee always made music different and ever since middle school I've loved singing... Still to this day I wish I could record.
Later she added:  "Oops...Mr. Still was another."

Deonna Cossentino added a fresh name to the mix:  "Mr. Sievering! He was amazing, and he really connected to students. He cared for everyone, no matter how 'popular' you were. He knew what needed to be done, and helped everyone who needed it."

I remember watching Mr. Sievering during a meeting with a young lady who was struggling in eighth grade, even though she had real talent. You can't measure most of what teachers do, including most of what matters, but at one point during the discussion he said to her, "Jessica, what I respect about you is that you're 'real.' You know who you are and you're not afraid to show it."

Jessica told me later how much such kind words meant--and when she had to tell someone she was pregnant she went to Mr. Sievering again.

Todd Huntley spoke fondly of his foreign language teacher at Loveland High School:
Amos Friedmann, I took 2 years of German and 1 year of French with him in high school. Looking back I can now see that he helped instill in me a love for learning about new cultures, travel, and languages. While the knowledge of German certainly came in handy living in Germany for 3+ years, it is more the interest in learning that he fostered that really set me on the path that I'm on.

Considering the fact that Mr. Huntley went on to Harvard Law, and a career in the military (traveling to thirty countries in the process), we can safely say that Mr. Friedman earned more than his pay.

I plan to post more examples in days to come; but I was pleased when an old high school friend jumped in on the discussion, joined not long after by my older brother. Mark and Tim and I are all advanced in years; but we still remember teachers from Revere High (near Akron) who made an impact, even after the passage of almost half a century.

That's what great and good teachers do. They shape lives. You can't measure that with a chronometer, an odometer, or a standardized test. Brother Tim felt the need to vent first, but then got into the swing:
How about Mr. -----, who made most students both hate him, and, hate algebra? What a psycho he was! On the other hand, Ms. Ocasek was great and made Latin interesting, Ms. Schmidt, my fourth grade teacher, was wonderful, and several profs I had in law school (practicing attorneys who taught in the night school) brought outstanding real-world insights to their classes!

I won't go into details on the algebra teacher; but I had Ms. Ocasek, myself, and when I attended my 40th high school reunion, I asked classmates (because this question always interests me), "Who do you remember as being a really good teacher?"

Ms. Ocasek's name came up a number of times--and I forgive her for giving me a "D" in Latin II for the year. It wasn't her fault.

I was pretty lackidaisical back in the day.

Mark mentioned three educators who left a lasting impression:
Mr. Pamer taught Advanced Math and Physics. He pushed us pretty hard. Any grade you got from him was earned. He invented the concept “firm, but fair[.]” His explanations of slippery concepts were clear and to the point. No question was stupid, even the stupid ones. When I re-entered college in 1980, much of what he taught still lined the inside of my skull. It lasted through my engineering career. This is a characteristic of an excellent teacher.

Sadly, Mr. Smith was my English teacher only for my senior year. His personality was sometimes (how shall we say) eccentric. If you could handle the mood changes and the occasional bombast, he was very intelligent and a great communicator. He treated us like college students to present concepts like “death wish”, existentialism, sexual motifs found in literature, and others. Preparing us for college, he said, and that he did. Sometimes when I got my themes back, I wondered if he had cut an artery over it. The grade of the paper he wrote so large that everybody in the class saw it – there was no hiding from it.

I never took Interscholastic Basketball I, II, III from Coach Greynolds. I just had him for Driver’s Ed. Every so often Coach tossed the Driver’s Ed book out the window to cover what he called the practical stuff the school doesn’t teach us. So he taught how to balance a checkbook, how to buy a new or used car, what to look for in a house, how to apply for a loan and so forth. Was he giving us the right scoop? In my experience, his advice was pretty sound, especially about buying new car.

It's interesting to see how much Mark's memories of Mr. Greynolds mirror those of Kelly Harris, when Kelly talked about Mr. Poe. (I know dozens of former basketball players would tell you Greynolds, the most intense coach I ever saw in action, profoundly shaped their lives for the better.) And I can testify myself:  Eugene Smith taught me how to write. (His name also came up repeatedly when I asked about good teachers at my 40th reunion.)

Mr. Smith had one rule in class that I never forgot and adapted for use in my own history classes (my students did a lot of writing, as I'm sure many would attest). If he caught you using the words "thing" or "things" in an essay he circled either and slapped an "F" on your paper and your academic goose was pretty much cooked. If you wanted to say something, he insisted, say it clearly. Don't talk about "things going bad." If your pet hamster was flattened by a bulldozer, then by all the powers in the English language, say what you mean!

I worked for the Loveland City Schools for 33 years and saw all kinds of fine teachers in action, from Steve Ball, who taught math for the team of teachers I had the honor to lead, to Jeff Sharpless, who taught seventh grade history like I did and was always so helpful in his collaboration. I saw Rachel Angel in action, a young lady who worked tirelessly with special education kids, and Pat Settlemire, who got paid as an aide, but did the work of a regular teacher, and Kathy Simpson, who worked brilliantly with LD kids.

There are hundreds of thousands of great and good teachers out there today and there always have been.  It's a shame we don't hear more about them.

Students had plenty to say and mentioned dozens of teachers. See similar posts:


  1. There was also Mrs. Greenwald or Mrs. Greenwood, one was an eighth grade history teacher and one was an eighth grade math teacher. They both were excellent teachers, but the math teacher was very emotional in her teaching. She had to over come the death of her husband, while making sure her students were still learning and helping them with their problems.

  2. I'm not sure what history teacher you would be reffering to; but yes, Mrs. Greenwald, who taught math (and later remarried and became Mrs. McCoy) was truly excellent.

    Not just good--excellent.

  3. She was the eighth grade history teacher. We watched old war movies more than anything in her class.

  4. Mrs. Garnerett? Later: Mrs. Pomeroy?

  5. Now that I think more of it maybe it was Mrs. Pomeroy.

  6. Wait a minute, could it have been Mrs. Glassford? She had black hair and glasses.

  7. There is another teacher who also meant a lot to me and other students, he wishes to remain anonymous also. He had a student who was absent more than in school. This student spent most of her time trying to heal from an accident she was in, then she found out she had a mass going in her right ear. She had under went surgery to have the mass removed. She spent most of her time on crushes because of broken ankles. One day the student was in the office with her Mom because the teachers wanted to hold her back because she wasn't passing her classes. This teacher that came in the office to speak his piece was furious because the Mom insisted that they passed her daughter from the seventh grade to the eighth grade. There wasn't much the teacher could do or say at this time. This girl later found out why no matter how many days of school she missed and how bad her grades was that the school district couldn't hold her back. She was untouchable at that time. To get to the point, this teacher wasn't well informed of the girls accident until just recently. To this day, the girl still can't get to the whole truth of the matter.

  8. Mr Battle was my 8th grade basketball coach. We had a big home game against CAPE, who had slaughtered us the year before. We were all sitting in his classroom before the game. As best as I can recall, and I can feel I can recall pretty well, this was the text of his pregame speech (and I swear I am not making this up):

    "Boys, you've got to win at home. If I were going to fight Mike Tyson in a boxing ring I would lose. But if I fought him at my house, I would win. Because I would have my wife bring me a broom. And then I would beat the tar out of him!"

    None of us had any idea what the hell he was talking about, but we did go out and win the game.

  9. Just came across this today... I so loved reading through all the wonderful sentiments about Loveland City Schools teachers! I'll throw in my favorites, as it is Teacher Appreciation Week, even though this blog post is two years old:

    - Mr. Sharpless was my 7th grade history teacher. That was my first year in Loveland. I still remember a lot of history because of his class, and I later was excited to have him as my tennis coach in high school. Very thorough with a silly sense of humor, but a caring guy.
    - Mr. Friedmann was probably one of my favorite teachers I've ever had. I used to visit his class in the mornings before school would start, long after I completed three levels of German. He let me practice German by composing emails to a his friend, an elderly neighbor. To this day, I echo his laugh, wishing I could learn all over again from him.
    - Mr. Wagner instilled curiosity, a sense of wonder, and patience in all of his students. Physics and chem were NOT my favorite subjects, but I endured them a heck of a lot better because of him.
    - I also had Mr. Miller in middle school for choir, showchoir, and drama. He connected with his students in a way not many other teachers could - we looked to him as a friend as well.

  10. Chelsea Chase added this on Facebook:

    Well...Ms. Burge (LHS physiology) was great- was tough in both expectations and work/tests because she knew college was going to be more challenging. I ran into her in target after my freshman semester in college and got to tell her she was right and thank her! Also, Mrs. Hudson (LHS foreign language) made me love French and I always loved going to her class, Ms. Powers (LHS Calculus) helped me after school and even when I was struggling in college. I also really loved Mr. Battle- he was great! And of course you made history so interesting, and forever struck things and stuff from my paper-writing vocabulary!

  11. This comment also comes by way of Facebook. Victoria Evans says:

    Hi Mr. Vial,
    I am just now seeing your posts about teachers who made an impact. I want to second what you said about Mr. Ball. I remember how he was always offering extra help after school for students who were struggling. I remember going after I had failed a quiz. He explained the material and concepts again and once he saw I understood it he let me retake the quiz. I still think about how great of a teacher he was. A few years after I had had him my friends and I ran into him at the library. We were there working on high school math homework and we told him we didn't understand one of the problems and he sat down and worked on it with us until we figured out. He truly cared about his students. I look up to him as an example of great educator.

  12. I feel like I missed out on the party. I was taught by a lot of excellent educators at Loveland Middle/High School, but I will always remember one man over everybody else. Mr. Bruce Meagly taught me more life lessons and left more lasting impressions on me than any other coach, teacher, mentor, boss, or team leader I've ever had, and his love for all things music is something that I will carry to my deathbed.

  13. I too had great teachers at Loveland in junior high and high school, but the first teacher that came to my mind was my second grade teacher, Mrs. Dickman. Every year she’d have her class collaborate to write a story. My class wrote a fairytale that we decided would make a perfect play. None of her classes had done this before, and I’m sure it wasn’t in her lesson plans. Side note - would she have had the flexibility if she had to fit in all her common core requirements? But, she encouraged our creativity and imagination so we adapted the story into a script, built sets and costumes and invited our parents to see the show. I desperately wanted to play the princess, a fact I’m pretty sure I made well known, but she took me aside and gently informed me that I was needed as Wart Nose the Witch. I still remember that day and how proud we were of our work, and how proud Mrs. Dickman was of all of us.