Being a teacher allows you to directly influence a person, and if you do it long enough, thousands of people. From these thousands, it should be no surprise that some of these students will become teachers. How long does this line of educators stretch back? Are there teachers today that can trace their mentoring parentage all the way back to Socrates? If a teacher had to ask themselves, who was my most influential teacher, who would they choose? My mentoring parentage, the name I have given to the two educators who influenced me the most, whether they meant to be or not, comes from a high school English teacher in Minnesota, and a social studies professor in South Dakota.
Both teachers were uncommon, similar and different in the ways that made them special. Susan taught my AP English class and was the advisor for an improv group that I joined in high school. Vince was my social studies methods instructor and my university supervisor when I student taught. Through her class, Susan inspired my love for reading and writing, and an appreciation for their power. Vince revealed to me how much I was meant to be a social studies teacher. Thinking back, which means traveling through the fog of twelve years of memory, I remember both of them being eccentric. They ensured a love of learning from their students, even if those students did not succeed in traditional ways. What I mean to say, is they both did what was best for the students, not the school system. Not to say that their students did not also succeed traditionally, but I am confident in saying both were more concerned with shaping life-long-learners.
Susan gave us book assignments, acting assignments, debate assignments, so many assignments, but now that I reflect on it, they had more to do with instilling students with a love for learning, rather than ensuring that we passed some mundane test. My final project was a 25 page biography of my life, something that did not directly connect to the AP English test, which I did not pass. I really do not mind that I had to take English 101 in college. Instead of receiving 3 college credits from passing AP English, I got something much greater, I learned how much I loved to read and write. That summer, I traveled to visit my father, a six hour flight, two weeks in Henderson, NV, and another six hour flight, and I read voraciously. I read classics, if memory serves, War of the Worlds, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and Moby Dick (although I stopped half way). It was Susan’s class that got me to read on my own, to enjoy the reading, and think about what else I wanted to read. From that love, I made up for my lack of effort in high school and undergrad; I lived and studied abroad twice, I pursued a Master’s while substitute teaching, and I continue to this day to read and write, both professionally and for pleasure.
What was Vince’s quirk? He was a rebel. Tattooed from his days of playing rock music, to his stories about relating to students beyond teacher-student formalities, he seemed like an aberrant teacher. Educators are not supposed to get close to their students, we should be suspicious about our love for kids and keep them at a distance. Vince helped me question my presumptions. Many public educators will be the closest thing to a loving adult that some students will have, we will also be the only people who make students question their perspectives of their sheltered lives; Vince put the realism of teaching into perspective for me because he was a teacher who ensured that he had a significant relationship with his students.
Vince proved to me, through his engaging lessons and candor, that social studies teachers could and should help students question issues of society and humanity. If no other place in our polarizing society is safe to have a dialogue, discussion, or debate, then a social studies classroom must be maintained as the last safe space to do so. This was a troubling thought for me and my cohort; we were taught to fear parents, student sensitivities, school boards, administration, and all of society. Playing it safe and teaching from the book seemed like a safer option. Through his lessons on being a social studies teacher, Vince cleared my vision, alleviated the weight of fear from my mind, and gave me the courage to push past tradition. Vince taught me nothing about what I should specifically say to my students, or what I should teach, but he gave me the lion’s share of my courage to be a leader among social studies educators.
Susan and Vince were dramatically different, but I gravitated towards them both. One had a love for the Minnesota Lynx basketball team, the other for rock metal music. Despite their distinctions, I wanted to impress both of them. I wanted them to tell me I did a good job. I was by no means a teacher’s pet, and during my high school and undergraduate years, I possessed a terrible attitude towards my teachers and classes, especially if I found them boring or their curriculum irrelevant. My less than glorious GPAs from high school and undergraduate college are evidence of my poor attitude. But both teachers cut through my cynical disposition of adolescence; I was motivated to complete their assignments and impress them. I became stimulated in their classrooms because they bared their souls; I feel like I knew the real them, not the “teacher version.”
Based on experiences from seven years of being in public schools, as student-teacher, substitute, tutor, and full-time teacher, I think the exceptional teachers are the ones who can form the best relationships with students. An educator-learner connection draws strength from many components, such as personality, pedagogy, willingness to listen and speak-up, knowledge of discipline, type of curriculum, energy, and empathy. I could probably fill two more pages of what makes a good relationship; I know Susan and Vince had mastery over many of them. Noteworthy teachers are the ones who focus on different components of a good relationship and ensure they form a positive connection with students. I value the relationships with Susan and Vince the most because they were memorable and impactful teachers. I learned a great amount from these two educators. It is not because I sat in their classroom, made flashcards, and attempted to memorize all of the details of their curriculum. Susan and Vince taught me the most because it was their lessons I repeatedly replayed in my mind, even after they were no longer directly in my life.
I am not sure if they were inspired by a certain teacher in the same way that I was inspired by them. Maybe their mentoring parentage can be traced as far back as Socrates, or maybe Susan and Vince were original and discovered their methods through their own experiences and beliefs. What I can say for certain is this; Susan and Vince helped me become the learner and teacher that I am today. I will endeavor to pass those lessons on to my students and ensure their spirit of teaching is passed on into eternity.