What a blessing it is to have an awesome teacher. My schooling was riddled with fantastic teachers that I enjoyed and appreciated at the time, but it isn’t until many years later, now myself a teacher, that I truly recognize the impact they had on me.
Let’s be honest, I don’t think a single one of my teachers would have pegged me as a future educator. I’ve previously explored how I wasn’t that great of a student (at least in high school) and so my disinterest in course material, procrastinating abilities, and lack of academic drive would have made me an unlikely candidate for the world of education. Yet here I am, 31 years old and finally looking back to the teachers and professors that set me on this path.
In fourth grade, less than a year after we had moved to Kenya, I walked into Ms. Price’s classroom. WNS was still a relatively new international school in Nairobi at the time and so our little wooden buildings sat on cinder blocks to keep them elevated and really weren’t that big (not that I noticed this at the time). Ms. Price was from Australia and was only going to be in Kenya for a year—and we got to have her as our teacher.
Over the course of that year, our classroom transformed; we went from being a space ship (where the board was the screen and we each had a little command module as a desk) to an underwater marvel with crepe paper hanging from the windows to give the room a bluish hue and a giant stuffed paper shark hanging from the ceiling. And we loved it.
But what I remember the clearest was the books she’d read aloud to us; seated on the floor at her feet we listened in rapt attention as she introduced us to the beauty of fiction. I wouldn’t have considered myself a reader before that year, but after having The Hobbit, The Phantom Tollbooth, and Where the Red Fern Grows read to me, I was hooked. Those are still some of my favorites to this day and I’ve reread each of them numerous times. Ms. Price made the books come alive, and I can never thank her enough for first introducing me to the pleasures of reading fiction.
In seventh grade, it was Mrs. Matthews that perhaps first saw the potential I was letting go to waste. She just understood students, intuitively discerning what each of us needed to succeed and where we needed to be challenged. She noticed that four of us were bored during math and asked us if we’d like to move ahead. For the rest of the year, we four worked independently on Pre-Algebra and for the first time, I enjoyed math and felt challenged.
Looking back, I stand in awe at what seemed such a simple thing to me at the time. I can now imagine the hours it must have taken her to set out an entirely different math program for just four of us, make sure we were still succeeding, grade our work, and still teach all the other 7th graders. She knew we needed to work on a different level and she made it possible. I know that she saw each student’s needs and met them.
In 10th grade, at Black Forest Academy for the year, I had Mr. Kent for Biology. Now, science was never my strength; it’s not that I didn’t understand it, but it seemed needlessly detailed, laborious, and often boring. And somehow, Mr. Kent changed that. His class was not hard at all; in fact, I’d be surprised if anyone ever got less than a C. And yet it was no less rigorous. We watched lots of clips from National Geographic and the Discovery Channel that he’d meticulously recorded onto VHS tapes kept in a metal cabinet. Biology was fun.
And his tests and exams were amazing. No tricks, no frills, just biology. He’d give us these big questions weeks before the test. Then, on the day of the test, we got blank sheets of paper with a question at the top of each. And the instructions were to draw, illustrate, label, explain, or otherwise show that we knew the answer to the question. I remember meticulously drawing and labeling a cell, confident I knew exactly what he was expecting. And I wasn’t wrong. At the end of semester exams, he’d sit right outside the exam room and we turned them in directly to him and after a few minutes, he could tell exactly what we knew, what we didn’t and tell us our grades.
Mr. Kent showed me that a class did not need to be hard for me to learn something, and that enjoyment of a course does not need to come at the expense of rigor. It also helped that he had a fantastic sense of humor and his class was generally funny.
At Rosslyn Academy, it was probably my failed attempt at taking AP European History with Mr. Dow that stands out. It was the first class that I found truly hard. I’d chosen it mostly because my other option was US History, which I’d already taken the previous year at BFA (where I’d also taken AP German and passed with flying colors, mostly because I already spoke the language). We read Candide, The Communist Manifesto, lots of complex texts and discussed so many wonderfully intricate ideas. And yet, there was so much going on I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it all. I also probably didn’t put in nearly as much effort as I should have. I don’t remember what I got in the course, but it likely wasn’t that great. I could have scraped a 3 on the exam if I hadn’t had a headache on exam day, but the 2 I ended up with was a healthy reminder that I wasn’t just going to succeed at everything without putting in some effort.
But I liked the class. I enjoyed going, loved the discussions, and learned a lot. Mr. Dow is as wonderfully reflective man. Many years later, I read his book Virtuous Minds, exploring what it means to love God with our minds and found myself resonating with a lot of the ideas and finally finding language to express what I valued. Mr. Dow started me down the path to thinking clearly and cohesively.
My freshman year at Houghton College was where the English thing really kicked in with the two Dr. Bs. Dr. Brenneman was the theater professor, and though I never got to be in a show that he directed, I took Principles of Writing (the intro level writing class) with him. There were three written assignments that semester and somehow, he let me get away with writing three short stories. I made sure they met the requirements from the rubric and asked him ahead of time whether I could try out my ideas. And each time, he said, “go ahead.” He held a one-on-one meeting with each student, and I remember to this day that he said my stories felt like a breath of fresh air. Never before had a teacher complimented me in such a fashion on my writing; I like to joke that I was the only student taking Creative Writing with Dr. Brenneman.
He passed away a few years ago, having had an enormous impact on so many students, including me, who went on to become an English teacher who still loves writing stories. I never got the chance to thank him for bending the rules for me and letting me truly love the class. I came to him with an idea, and he let me run with it. It’s because of him that I always encourage students to approach assignments from a different angle and work with them to try and bring their own unique expressions to bear in my classes.
The second professor was Dr. Bressler. He’s the reason I became an English teacher. Houghton College does a May term after graduation each year, where students can take a 3-4 week intensive course to use up the rest of the credits they’ve already paid for. And so, for three weeks after my freshman year, I took “Oxford Christians”, rereading works by Lewis and Tolkien and being introduced to such wonderful writers as Charles Williams, G.K. Chesterton, and Dorothy Sayers. We read nine books in three weeks, joked around in our 3 hours classes each morning, and spent the sunny afternoons reading outside. It was glorious; I don’t remember when during that three weeks it happened, but by the end, I was no longer undeclared and had officially settled into my English Major. I went on to take another class with Dr. Bressler and the love, passion, and dedication he brought to the most complex literature was breath-taking. I later went on to student-teach under a teacher that had likewise become an English teacher because of Dr. Bressler.
It’s because of Dr. Bressler that I love literature, not just fantasy, science fiction, and westerns. He was the gateway to taking other literature classes with other professors.
Finally, it was Dr. Case that embodied the types of teacher-student relationships that I still seek to emulate. Every Houghton student takes the theology class “Introduction to Christianity” and I’d heard that I really should take it with Dr. Case. And his class was full. I went to his office, introduced myself and asked whether I could somehow get into his class. And wouldn’t you know, he contacted Academic Records, got me in and said, to paraphrase, “It’s just one more set of papers. At the end of the day, I’d rather have a student that wants to be in the class.” I took several more classes with him, including auditing “Systematic Theology” after I’d already graduated because I loved the authentic, difficult discussions we had in his classes.
He’d invite students to his house to watch Champions League games and while externally he may have always worn black and a fearsome scowl, anyone that knew him understood the deep care he had for his students. He loved his work, his classes, the content, but it was the students that came first. He taught students, not theology. And that has made all the difference.
I’m leaving out a lot of wonderful teachers. I was truly blessed with an abundance of talent that I didn’t even recognize at the time. Making toothpick bridges in Mr. Leatherer’s class, Ms. Scott’s kindness, getting to make a creative writing portfolio in Mrs. Krymusa’s class, learning about computers with Mr. Davis, Papa Beyer’s warmth, Ms. Orr’s jokes, Ms. Bressler’s red pen on my senior seminar paper, Dr. Wardwell bleating like a sheep, Dr. Nichols’ encouragement during student teaching, Dr. Woolsey constantly apologizing for being half a class period behind where he’d like to be. These and so many others impacted my life.
Thank you, dear teachers, for the joy, passion, dedication, and time you all put in towards making me who I am today. You’re the reason I’m a teacher, and every student I teach is in some ways also a student of yours. You’re having an impact in places you may not have heard of, on student that you may never meet.