Most important lessons learned from a teacher

Keith with a model of a DNA molecule. Credit: Steve Silberman/NeuroTribes

In the current US political climate, teaching as a profession is taking a beating. I don't quite understand how one of the most important jobs in this country, particularly at the K-12 level, is somehow perceived at the heart of our economic woes. Over at his NeuroTribes blog (mind, science, culture) at PLoS Blogs, science journalist Steve Silberman has a superb collection of science writer reflections on the most important lessons some of us have learned from teachers. I'm honored to have been invited to be in such lofty company - thanks, Steve! By the way, consider following Steve on Twitter @stevesilberman - his tweets are some of the most interesting and content-rich of any out there. All of the passages are wonderful in their own way but my favorite stories are by David Dobbs on his adulthood violin teacher and Sarah Fallon on her AP chemistry teacher. Go read and pick your favorite. My entry begins with my oft-told tale of growing up in northern New Jersey: As a gangly Polish kid in an Irish Catholic high school, I was a perennial target for physical humiliation. Being good in school didn’t help matters. But I had two science teachers whose kindness and support stay with me 30 years later. Thomas Hannan was a tall, handsome baseball coach who was also our 10th grade biology teacher. I good-naturedly taunted him by scoring a 100 on any test he could throw at us. After class one day, he offered to formalize the challenge: every time I got a 100 thereafter, he would buy a Pepsi and award it to me in class. If I didn’t, I owed him a Pepsi. I thought this was madness. I didn’t need another reason to be pushed around by the jocks. But as the baseball coach, Hannan’s endorsement became an inoculation against the thrashings that typically befell a smart kid. Good biology grades became an “in” thing. My chemistry and physics teacher, Neil Bender, was the opposite of Hannan in physical appearance — disheveled, mismatched clothes — and had a penchant for diverging into his other passion during class: movie reviews. After our first submission of chemistry lab reports, he commended us on our work but announced that one student’s work stood head and shoulders above the rest. He refused to say who until all of the cool kids badgered him for the student’s identity. As I sat in the back at the lab bench for the other outcasts, I was shocked when he revealed that I was the one with the propensity for chemistry. I was not the only one singled out by either of these teachers. They often did the same for others in their own thoughtful, personalized ways. Mr. Hannan and Mr. Bender demonstrated that public recognition of student performance and quiet understanding of high school challenges can reach across the decades to inspire you as a teacher — to pay forward the power of encouragement. What about you? What's the most important lesson you learned from a teacher? Was someone influential in how you got into chemistry? Or did you have a teacher who taught you a life lesson that transcends science? The comment thread is open.

Author: David Kroll

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  1. In large measure because of at least one of the three women to whom I paid tribute for Ada Lovelace Day last week, I became a teacher. I’ve since left the profession (hopefully, only on a temporary basis) for reasons not germane to this discussion.

    • Jeff, thanks so much for the comment and link – that’s a lovely post. I recommend that readers go read it.

  2. Not necessarily in this line of discussion, but my college Physics teacher told me how it was. I didn’t “get it” and I wasn’t going to “get it.” None of the concepts made any sense to me at all. I overtly cheated on my first semester Physics test by programming the formulas into my calculator. It didn’t help. Because I didn’t know which ones to use for which problems.

    I am a counselor today because someone told me that science was not my thing. Sure, I get excited about research and scientific findings in the addictions profession. I know how to read a study and I “get” the findings, unlike many of my colleagues, because I understand the scientific process. But I’ve never been so grateful than when someone told me I wasn’t in the right field. And to pursue what I was good at. Which is talking to people, and listening to how much they hurt.

    Doesn’t mean science no longer fascinates me. It just means that someone knew I wasn’t cut out for it and helped me find what I WAS cut out for.

    I miss you.