Memorable Teachers

Memorable Teachers

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Twas the week before Christmas and all through the house

Ran a tired professor and nary a mouse

The projects were graded and put in the car

And the drive to the college wasn’t too far

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Some of the best parts of being a teacher are the flexible schedule and time off, especially around the holidays. The not so great part of of it is the very busy time right before that time off occurs.

For many of my years as a college professor, our fall semester ended on the third weekend in December when graduation was scheduled. Graduating student’s grades were due, faculty attended a full weekend of graduation activities, and then the rest of the class received their grades by December 23rd. The entire college closed for about ten days starting on the 24th, so all of the administrative parts of your job also had to be settled in addition to the grading. No matter how much I prepared in advance, there was no way to anticipate everything that could go wrong during that busy time.

Case in point would be the year I promised my students that I would have their graded projects available for pick up outside my office by December 23rd. This was in the days before all assignments were submitted online, so I had a lot of notebooks filled with legal documents, research, and reflection questions that were the culmination of the class. They deserved my undivided attention and feedback. I also had Christmas dinner planned at my house, and all of the usual holiday preparations. By the time I finished, it was in the wee hours of the morning. But they were done and loaded in the car so I could lug them into the office.

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I set out bright and early on the 23rd. It was about a 30 minute drive on that very cold Nebraska day, but it was sunny and I had carols playing in the car. I parked in front of the building where my office was located, which included the campus information center. I parked in a spot the info center director could see, and there were other people coming and going. I had to carry some of the projects that wouldn’t fit in a suitcase, so I decided to hide my purse under the front seat. The small evening bag I took to the recent office Christmas party was on the floor. I hurried inside, dropped off the projects, and got back in the car. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but a broken passenger window , shards of glass everywhere, and a gale force wind. Both of the purses were gone. I know I wasn’t in the building more than 10 minutes, so whoever took my purses worked quickly and must have been watching the car.

I went into the campus info center, and the director said she hadn’t seen anything. But she was very helpful as I notified my bank, the credit cards I could remember were in my purse, and lamented the loss of around $30 cash. I also tried to call some window replacement companies and my insurance company. Needless to say they weren’t able to help me on December 23rd. So after a very chilly ride home, I had to put cardboard with duct tape in the damaged window, and drive the car for several days before it got fixed.

None of that was funny, but what happened in the ensuing weeks was. First, the campus security director thought my mishap presented a teachable moment about safety. When we got back from break, he started posting every week about ” a recent break in of a faculty member’s car on campus”. Initially, it was just a reminder to lock your doors, and not to leave a purse. Then he started adding details- my purse supposedly contained hundreds of dollars, and the car was full of Christmas gifts. Lots of credit cards were stolen and received fraudulent charges. I think he also added about thirty minutes to the time I was actually in the building. This made for interesting emails, but none of it was true. And since I worked on a very small campus, everyone knew who the negligent “faculty member” was before he sent the first email. After several weeks of this, I finally contacted him and asked that he stop. Everyone knew it was me. I also mentioned that the details he shared weren’t remotely accurate, and that while I certainly learned my lesson about the purses, I was on campus to return graded projects. In other words, I was doing the proverbial good deed. I also mentioned, ever so politely, that we might need some additional patrols by the security department since I knew I wasn’t the first person to have her car broken into. I am happy to report that his emails stopped shortly thereafter.

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But the saga continued. In February, I received a call from a police officer who had found my billfold, and the small evening bag. Since the billfold wasn’t inside the evening bag, she asked me to identify what was in it to verify it was mine. I really didn’t remember, so I started guessing. Tube of lipstick? No. Hairbrush? No. She finally took pity on me and told me what she had logged on her report- an IOU for $20, signed by a friend’s husband, and a tampon. When I go out for the evening, I travel light! I was able to pick up the purse and those valuable contents about a week later. She also shared that they had arrested the culprit and he was what they called a “frequent flyer”. Breaking into cars was his specialty, and he usually waited in parking lots until he saw a woman leave her car without her purse. Health clubs and college campuses were his usual targets.

Several welcome changes occured in the ensuing years- our fall semester ended a week earlier, so not as close to Christmas and the campus being closed. We installed a learning management system, so that even though most of my classes were traditional “face to face” courses, all assignments could be submitted and graded online. The learning curve on these systems could be steep, but it made grading and communicating with students much easier. No more racing to campus with graded projects or papers.

I can also verify that I have never left a purse of any type in a car since that break in. And the projects I took to campus that fateful day? They were all still sitting in the box outside my office when I returned in January. But my teacher halo was bright, because I got them to campus on time, just in case.

I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday season. I plan to take a week off, then share my next post on Monday, December 28th. It will be a farewell to 2020. Heaven knows we are all ready to say goodbye to this eventful year!