Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why Teaching Matters: What's the Square Root of Inspiration? Part 3

I don't know how many readers of this blog have seen the movie Waiting for Superman; but if you haven't let me save you the time and give you the plot outline for the film:

Scene One:  America's public schools suck.

Scene Two:  America's public schools suck really bad.

Scene Three:  And they suck because America's public school teachers suck. 

                                                                                                                  THE END

(I've heard it's Governor John Kasich's favorite movie, by the way; but that might be nothing more than an ugly rumor.)

It's funny, though.  I worked for 33 years in the public schools and most of the teachers I worked with were dedicated professionals.  That doesn't mean most of us walked on water or deserved to have our careers immortalized in Hollywood film. 

But I do have a theory:  I believe teachers come in all the same varieties as movie producers, political figures, and plumbers.  Some good.  Some middling.  Some not so good.

(Yes, Governor, I mean you.)

At any rate, last week I asked former students, via Facebook, to comment on teachers who made a difference in their lives.  This is Part 3 of a series.

Scott Everett, a young man I well remember for his outstanding work ethic in seventh and eighth grades, went on to study zoology at Miami University.  He remembers several fine educators from his Loveland school days:
In high school I came down with mono and was stuck at home sick and barely able to get out of bed for over 3 weeks. Mr. Wagner (Advanced Chemistry and Physics) and Mr. Bivens (Calculus) actually came to my house several times during that period and went through all the material with me so I wouldn't fall behind. And of course there's Mr. Maegly [Loveland Middle School band director]. The quality of musicianship he was able to get out of us wild & crazy 7th-8th graders was amazing, and routinely outshone even the high school band. After all these years a bit of Mr. M still comes out every time I strap on my guitar and crank it up.

Jessica Maxfield, second from left.

Jessica Maxfield, who now makes music a career, and lectures at Northwestern University, agrees. 

She's working on comments about Mr. Maegly and I'll add them when she finishes.

Mandi Vargo, also a Loveland graduate, now teaching chemistry at East Feliciana High School in Louisiana, posted her thoughts:

"While I don't agree with everything you say [on your blog] Mr. Viall, I really love reading what you have to say about education."

What???  The young Jedi doubts Yoda!  Well, I forgive her.  She was a wonderful young lady to have in class, and something tells me she's another fine teacher.

So:  Ms. Vargo continues:
My most memorable teachers from Loveland definitely include the cast of characters already mentioned. I loved your class Mr. Viall, you made history (by far my least favorite subject) fun and interesting. I also remember how you always treated everyone the same. I don't think I realized it at the time, but as a teacher myself now, I try and live up to that standard with my own students. I also distinctly remember Mr. Ball and his endless patience. I went through a bit (understatement) of a whiney phase in the 7th grade and he never once showed frustration at my endless monologue of “But Mr. Ball, I dooooonnnn’tttt geeeetttttt ittttttttttt!” Mr. Miller was also an amazing influence on my gooney preteen years. He was wonderful at building up a student’s confidence. It’s amazing how much you appreciate your former teachers when you step into those shoes yourself! I hope I can have half the impact on my students that my teachers had on me.

I didn't want to use what students said about me, but Ms. Vargo mixed her praise altogther.  And SirSam Benzinger had a few kind words to add--and I should note that he helped me raise a lot of money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation this spring (Sam is a good man, and worked his buns off for JDRF, and "blames" me for his interest in government.)

Then Deana Callahan Willisch weighed in from a point of view so unusual, I had to include what she offered. This one goes way back, to a time when corporal punishment was still used in the schools.

(I feel like a dinosaur.)

Ms. Willisch writes:
I have to agree with SirSamuel - it would have to be you. If you remember the infamous swatting of a classmate for snapping my bra strap in your class….I had been bullied all my years at Loveland in one form or another (mostly mentally and emotionally, but sometimes physically). When you stood up for me (and took back order in your classroom by reminding the students that there are consequences to bad behavior), it was really the first time a teacher had ever done so in response to my tormenters.

You were so obviously angry at not only the disruption of your lesson but at the sheer injustice of the unwarranted and unprovoked act against me, and you promptly marched that student out into the hallway and delivered justice.

It was at that moment that my mindset changed from "I am a loser who deserves to be treated this way" to "I am just as worthy and important as anyone else in this school."

Education is a funny business, I think you can say, as complex and hard to "measure" as life itself. So, if standing up for Deana helped her, I'm happy.  And I hope I didn't ruin that other boy's life, the young man who pulled her bra strap and got swatted.

And I'm not an advocate of corporal punishment today, in any way.

Meanwhile, Zach Goyer, jumped into the conversation and added a fresh name to the mix: "What about Mr. Damewood?" he wondered.  "He was an awesome teacher, and the assignments he gave us weren't only related to English, but also helped with skills that I use now in college such as how to properly write a research paper. Plus he would always try to keep us on top of current events, and the books he had for us were always amazing."

Jonathan Davis, now a Loveland High School senior, concurred:  "I agree Mr. Damewood is an awesome teacher. English has been great this year even though I normally dislike it."  I asked Jonathan to add a few details and he came back with this:
Mr. Damewood always keeps us entertained in English class by just doing different things. one day we had a book talk about bees so he brought in his beekeeper suit and explained how you get the honey out and everything. when we have reading assignments he likes to point out stuff that we didn't realize that makes us laugh. whenever we seem bored he'll just make a few jokes then go back to class work.

Working at Loveland Middle School for more than three decades, I heard young students talk about elementary teachers they loved and then heard former students come back and tell me which high school teachers they most admired. 

I wasn't living in some fantasy land.  Don't get me wrong.

I know there are bad teachers out there, just as there are bad car mechanics and stock brokers and horse wranglers, too, I suppose.  But we need to remember there are plenty of good ones, a simple truth that seems forgotten today. 

Eric Bauer, a top student when I had him in eighth grade, and now a senior at LHS, had this to say:
Mr. Wagner has been an amazing teacher for me. I was privileged enough to have him for AP Physics. The first day he asked all of us what we wondered about. The most common replies were silence or "I don't know". Boy did he fix that. He showed us countless demonstrations and asked many us all questions on why things happen. He also accepted any question of ours and answered it to the best of his knowledge (which is quite considerable).

He taught us an amazing amount. Not only did we learn mechanics, electrostatics, and thermodynamics but he taught us how to think abstractly. In that classroom we were fledgling college students for 90 minutes. In the first quarter I struggled quite a bit but once I got into the swing of things I was able to enjoy and learn the units very well. Thanks to his class I am currently acing AP Chemistry (the hardest class in the school!) and independently studying circuitry.

Mr. Wagner has been good in the classroom for a very, very long time; and Cheri King, a dedicated sixth-grade teacher for Loveland today, remembers Mr. Wagner just as fondly as Eric, though from the perspective of an earlier generation:

Mr. Wagner - I was his student near the beginning of his career. Although I was not a talented science student, I remember his enthusiastic approach to teaching, making every minute of class meaningful.

When I became a math teacher, after completing a music degree, I used Mr. Wagner as a role model for how I approached teaching. He was highly prepared for class and was always looking to fine-tune his work. He kept careful class notes as evidenced by the giant notecards stacked on his lab table. When needed, he added notes to himself on ideas inspired from class. If there was a “fool proof” method to make a lesson more effective, Mr. Wagner was going to find it. (He did, however, chuckle on occasion that this might be the one unachievable task - but it didn’t stop him from trying.)

Mr. Wagner seemed to be as interested in helping his students - teenagers - learn more than just science facts. We learned how scientists really conduct their research, make discoveries, and learn from their mistakes. If Mr. Wagner’s demonstrations went awry - no problem. This turned into an opportunity for him to invoke one of his mantras at the time: If it’s worth doing; it’s worth doing right. The learning experience was of primary importance. Giving up was not an option. Observing, analyzing, hypothesizing, and finding a solution was the path to take.

Mr. Wagner knew how to make science relevant and accessible to all students. He was caring and encouraging toward his students. He set high expectations for everyone. Critical thinking, thoughtful ideas, and questions were always encouraged. It’s not surprising that he’s still a well-loved teacher today, over 40 years into his career.

I suppose Susanne Beaudoin should have the final say. She remembers a number of educators fondly, for the very kind of reasons that are an immeaurable, in the end, but offer the best evidence of what good teachers actually do:

I would have to say Mr. Folzenlogen. Just for the fact that he helped to set me on the path to being an artist. He helped get my art recognized and showed me that being in the art club did NOT make you a nerd. Then there was you. You showed me that history was a truly awesome subject when presented the right way. (I graduated college 4 hours shy of a history minor. You also helped encourage my writing and artistic side. And there was Mr. Still [who taught industrial arts for several years at Loveland Middle School]. I got a deck chair that is STILL in my yard today! In his class, girls with power tools that knew what they were doing were COOL! (between him and my dad, I learned enough to paint my walls, tile my floors and fix about anything!) I also need to mention: Mrs. Dyson, Mrs. Reynolds and Herr Friedmann. Thanks Guys!

 So, yes.  I'm no fan of standardized testing--and I think you'll notice that what real students remember, looking back on days spent in school, has nothing to do with standardized anything. In the end, education is about the teacher who inspire a love for learning.

I'd like to know how education experts (who never teach) and politicians (who only preach) think we can go about measuring any of what these students say.


  1. Hello ya'll, I was a student of the "Teacher on Teaching" and I can only say this about this man he is right on this one. Standardized tests do not really reflect how well the teachers in this country are teaching in fact they seem to hinder the ability for teachers to teach any thing other that what is covered on the tests. I wasn't a model student like the others that are mentioned above. In fact I was quite far from it. But I am in fact no dummy. Over the years I have seen portrayed in the media that American students are so "stupid" that they can't find even their own hometown on a map or even the USA on a globe of the Earth. I have done some experimenting on my own and I have yet to find someone older than a 5th grader who can't find their hometown on a map or the USA on a globe (or Germany, or Italy, or Iran, or Brazil, or ect, ect, ect). Some might say to this well of course you and your test subjects grew up in the burbs and went to a stellar school. Then I would reply I was in the Army and I knew many inner city fellows also. These fellows were from places like South Hampton, East LA, The Bronx, ect. Guess what? They could read a map quite well, well at least according to Army standards. I would think that these guys could find their homes on any map provided the resolution was good enough. Case in point our teachers (and schools) are not as bad as the media and the politicians would have us believe. Note: I now live in a “poor” rural area guess what the people out here can read maps too.

  2. Very inspirational post for anyone interested in improving public education. We probably need to gear up and truly offer resistance to the testing steamroller that is distorting our schools, driven by non-educators whose goals include defeat of teachers' unions and tax money for private schools. No matter where you are in this country, the tests your state legislators impose are making the situation worse.

  3. Ah...agreed on the testing steamroller. It's going in the wrong direction and flattening everything good in it's path.