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Teachers teach best as people

Published 12:04pm Monday, February 27, 2012

Whenever I have spoken to groups of teachers or taught future teachers, I have sought to convince them their personal influence on students is more important than whatever subject they teach. So, Matilda Cuomo’s book The Person Who Changed My Life (1999) easily caught my attention as a source of specific examples, and it did not disappoint me. Life-changing influences of teachers bear no relation to subject or education level. Teachers teach when they influence persons, and teachers who influence persons are those who teach. Period.

The editor, the wife of former New York governor Mario Cuomo, asked 76 of her friends and acquaintances to write about who mentored them. Not surprisingly, teachers are cited more often than any other relationship. However, there is more to the larger story than merely that a teacher changed these lives. Although not all seem aware of why these particular teachers influenced them, I can recognize a pattern among their stories. Not just any teacher influences, but I find qualities and factors common to those who do in what these people relay. I have observed these matters in teachers on every level.

In my personal experience, I report I had a few very bad teachers, but most were indifferent. I have had several good teachers, and these were very good indeed.

Cuomo’s friends encourage me by how frequently they name elementary school teachers. They encourage me not by demonstrating the influence teachers on the “lower” levels have, because I know this full well. But that these should recognize the influence when they were at such a young age at the time is what impresses me. I suspect grade school teachers would be mentioned more often yet if the individuals had been more mentally astute and emotionally sensitive at the time.

At least among those in this group, high school seems to be the point at which career directions began. This may be generally so, because grade school teachers come into their lives too early to sense vocational interest and aptitude, and college professors enter the picture after direction is rather well established. We recognize exceptions, of course. Many students enter college undecided about either major or career field. (I noticed in the University of Michigan bookstore in Ann Arbor a shelf of hats with academic majors emblazed. One reads: “Undecided.”) Changes in majors to which a student feels committed often come about dramatically by being overwhelmed by an especially impressive professor in another field.

The fields of study being pursued by those influenced by teachers are spread across the curriculum. Yet more significant is that a student majoring in Spanish, for instance, will be transformed by a biology professor from whom the student took but one course.

Two professors from whom I never took a course influenced me profoundly. I just went to them with questions I knew they could answer, and because they were known as caring teachers.

Not infrequently, it is a teacher who exercises the influence but not as a teacher. Perhaps it is a teacher on playground duty or while coaching or sponsoring an extra-curricular activity. Sometimes the individual is a teacher but exercised influence as neighbor or as a member of the same church.

Some parents become puzzled or even feel frustrated because a child has finally accepted from a teacher what the parent has been trying to get across for years. Not to worry. There are some matters with some kids at some points that they will accept parental-like advice from a teacher precisely because she is a teacher and not his mother. What matters is the kids learn, not the immediate agent. More than the kid will admit or even recognize, the cause was the parents’ advice accepted, and what the teacher did was to confirm it. The parent, then, parents best by supporting such a teacher. Most teachers are also parents and know how to support their students’ parents—and they do.

Two or three of my Sunday school teachers, unprofessional as they were, influenced me more than most licensed teachers.

Teachers teach best when they teach students as persons and do so as persons.


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