Earlier this spring, an email popped up in my inbox announcing a retirement party for a former colleague, a long-standing faculty member at a school where I used to teach. My first thought was, “I wish I could be there.” My second thought was, “Already?”
This colleague influenced my own teaching tremendously, and it’s hard to think of him not laboring away with me, figuratively at my shoulder though he’s somewhere far away. After so many years following the rhythmic steps of school years, very little non-teacher remains in me. I envy his milestone, I’m happy for him, but I’m also lost wondering what someone so teacherly will do next. I can only think of him in class.
Teachers are bakers. The improvisational type throws together material in the moment, hoping to get a feel for the idiosyncratic oven and the humidity and atmospheric pressure of the day and create who-really-knows-what. Some days, that creation is a towering lemon soufflé and some days a dark brown loaf of fireproof building material. Many days, the improviser never gets around to opening the oven door… or doesn’t care to.
In contrast, the cookbook type follows recipes down to the gram. A class is planned for execution and the oven is calibrated to function reliably. Everything is listed and scripted and repeats a strict procedure imagined in advance. The clock doesn’t dare disobey, and, if the food sometimes looks better than it tastes, at least it is photogenic and repeatable.
Like most teachers, I gravitate between these types… depending on the number of free periods before my next class. But I lean hard toward the improvisational and, even when I plan carefully, I often chuck the recipe midway in some brink-of-crazy rambling.
I’ve always aspired to be like my former colleague, the third type, the teacher’s teacher. When I worked with him, he didn’t just follow recipes but wrote and revised them. He was perpetually busy studying how planning and improvisation cooperate. He scrutinized the enzymes of classroom chemistry. Even after years of teaching, he continued to innovate and then study the results and adjust his approach. He was always quietly trying things out, often long before they became vogue. He wanted to know what allowed people to learn.
Students don’t appreciate teachers like him enough. They prefer mad scientists like me or line-up to watch someone renowned re-perform tried-and-true routines. In both cases, they’d like a passive experience, nothing as intimidating as being challenged by more work undertaken in new ways. Assuring your own education, testing yourself, and studying for the right reasons aren’t easy to sell to students. Handing the responsibility to your pupils won’t make you popular. My former colleague taught me to distrust popularity, only a small part of which is ever justified.
About a year ago, I received one of those letters in my mailbox that begin, “You won’t remember me but….” A former student wrote to thank me. She credited me with making a difference in her life and gave me multiple examples of our time together in class. I was flattered until I realized that some of those moments weren’t mine. She’d been in my course as a sophomore and in my colleague’s course as a freshman, and she was attributing to me what belonged to him. Maybe she found me “a character” and perhaps that led her to romanticize our time together, but, when she talked about learning, she meant him. He was the teacher, the one who made the biggest difference in her, without her noticing. Thinking back, I remembered that she’d once told me how demanding he was and how troublesome she found him. At the time, I thought “Good.” Now I know, “Good.”
Schools require improvisers and performers and all sorts I haven’t considered, but they may benefit most from the teachers like my former colleague. What’s truly inspiring are those who contribute to students’ education down to their DNA and whose influence grows with time. Teachers benefit from having colleagues so single-mindedly and quietly devoted to putting students, and not their own personality or stature, first.
Knowing my former school and department, I’m confident they will find ways to honor my former colleague as lavishly as he deserves, but I wonder if he can ever be honored as fully as he should be. By putting students first, he put himself second—I hope he knows how he has honored teaching, how important it has been for me to think of him, at least figuratively, at my shoulder.