How to Make a Teacher Smile


Riding home from a friend’s house on a warm Friday night with my daughter is a privilege I know I wouldn’t have much longer. She is only twelve, but it won’t be long before her Friday nights are spent socializing with her peers while I anxiously await her safe return. So I cherish every moment. We spent the drive trying to see who was faster at naming the songs and artists on the local radio station. Lucky for me they played mostly hits from yesterday.

But as we neared home, the songs being played were becoming more current. Then Taylor Swift’s Style came on. She not only knew the artist, but she was able to tell me the entire story behind each and every lyric. The fact that it was written about Harry Styles, her imaginary crush, didn’t hurt. Was this a sign of things to come?

Then as we were minutes from home, my daughter caught me by surprise. She hit me with a series of questions that I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.

“Daddy how did you become such a good father?”

It was very sweet and yet I gave a canned answer. I told her that I have been learning as I go. Then

“Did you learn from your dad?”

She knew the answer was going to be yes. She never got to meet him, but she has heard much about him her entire life. But her next question stumped me.

“What was something your dad taught you?”

I actually had no answer. How was that possible? My father is probably the person who has had the greatest impact in shaping me into the man I am today and yet I could not think of a single response!?

How was that even possible?

I told my daughter that it was hard for me to think of just one thing. When really the honest answer was I could not think of a single thing.

A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway, but my daughter’s last question continued to perplex me. Or more specifically, the fact that I couldn’t answer what should have been an easy question, was upsetting. But as I thought more about my inability to answer a seemingly simple and innocent question, I began to realize why I was speechless.

It is because the people who have the greatest impact on our lives do so in a way that is seamless. The people who help shape our lives never let go. And once we let them in, it becomes difficult to determine where they end and we begin.

They gradually help shape us over a period of time. So trying to identify what was taught and what we became can be tricky. I am sure that my father taught me many valuable lessons in the twenty-nine years I was able to spend with him. But I honestly can not name a single one. I became my father, and therefore when my daughter asked me to tell her something he taught me, I did not know how to answer. I didn’t see us as two different people. What he taught me and what we became together were both part of the journey that I continue to travel.

Like a sculpture created over time, there was no one chisel or chip that shaped me into the man I am today. It has been a process. And even though my father is no longer alive, I can still feel his presence. He continues to shape me and he always will.

This is exactly what happens with great teachers. When we close our eyes and think back to what they taught us, it is rare that we are able to identify specific skills or bits of knowledge. On the other hand, when we close our eyes, we are able to picture ourselves in their classroom. They made us feel a certain way.

Children come to us as unique pieces of clay. And instead of gradually waiting to see what they might become, we immediately begin to feel as if we must assemble them into what we think they should be. Adding a piece here, taking a piece there. We worry that they will leave us not knowing how to multiply and divide or how to read a poem and write an essay. We make our focus the skills and the knowledge and not the child.

I believe we need to focus more on the experience. Five, ten, twenty years from now our former students will not look back on their days with us and be able to remember what we taught them. But they will remember how we taught them. They will remember what it was like to come to our class each day. And maybe if we are lucky, when someone asks them what they learned in our class they can say,

I don’t remember Man, but Mr. Harper made learning fun. We had a good time in his class.

I would be okay with that.

In fact, that would make me smile!

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One comment

How absolutely true! It is the relationship I had with teachers that I remember most. I remember behavior and attitude more than the words of the best teachers. I remember specific incidents and words more from my worst teachers. We pick up teacher attitudes. Is it obvious that the teacher who prefers coaching may hate the English classes he’s forced to teach? I remember that such a teacher almost made me flunk English because he would not see me as the individual I was and gave me busy work in a grammar book to do that I had already mastered while my friends who scored higher than I on a standardized test got to go to the library and do research for writing a paper during class time.

When I shared with a classmate friend, he went with me to talk to the teacher ( I was timid about questioning teachers).
It was then that the teacher took a second look at the scores and saw that I did very well in the grammar and usage and it was the comprehension I needed to work on. So I got to join my friends at the library and write the paper. Has I been forced to stay in class and do the busywork I simply would have refused, something I had never done in response to an assignment. Everything in me rebelled at spending weeks of boredom without learning anything new.

I can remember most of the worst things teachers said and did in their classrooms. I remember few specifics of what the best teachers said. I simply remember if they made me want to explore the subject more on my own or if they made me hate the subject. Too many coaches were forced to teach history classes, so I thought history was dull until I got to college and had professors who loved it. One professor in graduate school who taught advanced grammar even made me see grammar as a controversial subject that was interesting. How I wish I’d had him for Shakespeare instead of the professor at UCLA who could barely keep me awake during the 8:00 class in the morning. Enthusiasm for a subject or lack of it is contagious. The best teachers had it. The worst did not.

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