As my teacher friends have been navigating the challenges of Covid, remote learning, and heading back to the classroom, I have been thinking about the most memorable teachers I encountered in my many years of education. From kindergarten to law school, I was a full time student for twenty consecutive years. Along the way I had some fabulous teachers, and a couple of funny classroom stories too.
Let’s start with the fabulous list-
Grade School– my kindergarten teacher, Miss Virginia, was the kindest and most patient person. A good kindergarten experience sets the foundation for many years, so I was fortunate to have her. In second grade, Mrs. Hood, who calmly helped us through the assassination of President Kennedy. Fifth grade brought me to a new school and Mrs. Wybenga. She was a master teacher, and so kind to me as I transferred in for the second semester.
Junior High- Mrs. McCart, in eighth grade, who taught me how to diagram sentences, and Mr. George in math class, who was nice even when we sang the theme song to a popular cartoon, “George of the Jungle” when he walked into the room.
High school– Sister Doris for sophomore theology, who made you think a lot about her essay assignments. And Mr. Sporcic for any class he taught- a bright and funny guy.
College– Dr. Dunn, a professor who had taught at every level of education from grade school to grad school, and loved being a teacher.
Law School– Professor Larry Berger, who made the income tax class understandable for those of us who majored in liberal arts, and who taught my senior seminar on real estate law.
Of course, being in school that many years also produced some not so fabulous experiences, but they are funny, so they fit in with the blog quite well. I offer these two examples in chronological order, starting with my high school sociology class.
Sociology was an elective, and only lasted one semester. I decided to take it in the spring of my senior year. The teacher was the formidable Sister Evelyn Barbara, known to her fellow sisters as E.B. I had never had her for a class. I also was a fairly good student and didn’t get in trouble except for talking too much in class. No big surprise there. But for some reason, E.B. took a dislike to me from day one. When she came into class, we started with a prayer, and then she took attendance. When she got to my name, she said “Sally Brown? What’s your problem beside the obvious ones?” I said “here”, and “I am not aware of any problems at the moment.” She laughed and went on. And then she did this every time she took attendance for the rest of the semester. I always answered the same. As the semester wore on, she had us start praying for a kidnap victim named Patty Hearst, an heir to the Hearst fortune who was being held for ransom in California. So the routine was pray for Patty, take attendance, ask me what my problems were, and then have class. Unfortunately, Patty Hearst became enmeshed with her captors, and she helped them rob a bank. It was very prominent on the news, so I thought it might help me with my roll call problems. A couple of days after she robbed the bank, E.B. went through the usual prayer for her, and asking me what my problems were. I gave my standard reply, but then mentioned I had a question. Did Sister think we still needed to pray for Patty since she held up a bank two days ago? Prior to that day, I had never said anything remotely sarcastic, but since she didn’t like me, I thought what the heck. And at that point there were only a couple of weeks left for seniors. She was actually speechless for a bit, and then said we probably didn’t need to if it was true. My classmates thanked me for the humor and getting rid of the Patty prayer, but E.B. still asked me about my problems for the rest of the semester. Every single class.
The second experience was in my first year of law school. I couldn’t find any pictures of a typical classroom, but the books above resemble the thick tomes we had to read all the time. And the classrooms were big- theatre style seating for you and about 75 of your classmates. We even had microphones at each seat if we talked too softly. How special!
This fun time happened during my first semester of my first year in a Contracts class. The instruction was completely done using the Socratic Method- the instructor assigned a lot of reading each night, and it was completely composed of case law. No narrative passages like “here is what you need for a valid contract”. Just cases that you had to read and brief (summarize) each night. In class, the professor would not impart any content via a lecture. He or she would choose one student each class, and then ask them questions for a solid hour. It was completely random, so you never knew when it would happen. This was the dreaded “being called on”. It usually started out with the facts of the first assigned case, and then diverged into a lot of questions, and hopefully answers from the student. Luckily, you only had to be called on once per semester. The unlucky part was if you had a bad day.
I arrived in my Contracts class with my usual supplies- the case book that weighed a ton, my briefs for the assigned reading, and ready to take notes when one of my classmates was called upon. I was looking across the room when I heard the dreaded “Ms. Brown, tell me the facts of the first case.” Oh joy! Today was my day. But I had been called on in other classes and did ok, so I wasn’t too worried until the professor started the “what if, and would your answer change” questions. By about the fifth one, I went blank- like an out of body experience watching myself sit in the chair without a head attached. You would think my E.B. experience would have toughened me up for this type thing, but no such luck. Classmates close by were trying to whisper something for me to say, but I couldn’t hear them. After some interminable silence, I finally attempted an answer. And after I did, the professor found it so incredibly inadequate that he turned to the blackboard and started to pretend he was pounding his head on it. I wanted to sink into my chair and disappear, but we had some time left. So I kept talking, and he stopped pounding his head on the board, and then the class was over. ( Note for attorney friends reading this- I remember some of his questions involved the Uniform Commercial Code. No wonder it was a struggle!).
Fast forward to a reception many years later that the law school hosted for alumni. It was free food, drinks and some continuing ed credits, so easy to attend. As I was waiting in line for a drink, I noticed Professor Blackboard was in front of me. He turned around, looked at my nametag, and asked me if that was my name when I was in school. I said no, gave him my former name, and waited for a glimmer of recognition. Nothing! He had no memory of one of the days that lives in infamy for me, one that made me seriously question my career choice. So that put it in better perspective after all those years, but I can still remember it in minute detail.
As a college teacher I tried to draw upon all of the experiences I had as a student. To remember that everyone comes to the classroom with different levels of knowledge. That anyone can have an “off day”, including the instructor. I expected students to participate in class, but rarely used any Socratic method questions that would stress them out unnecessarily. That breaking down complex concepts into “chunks” of learning worked well, and that student writing improved dramatically when I had them prepare graded rough drafts of written assignments. And in 28 years in the classroom, I never embarrassed anyone while taking attendance, never swore (outloud- may have thought it!), and I never made contact with a blackboard or Smart board unless I was writing something related to the course. It’s good to retire before any of these things occur, so mission accomplished!