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For Whom the (School) Bell Tolls

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There have been families of students throughout my career who would’ve nominated me to the teachers’ hall of fame, had my chalk bronzed, or canonized me for doing what they thought no teacher could do: help their child achieve the academic success they’d only fantasized about.


There are doubtless others who felt I should be run out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered, or pilloried in public infamy for not delivering the unstated promise: mold their child into a literate, well-read, and properly grammatical young person from a rapscallion who little cared for—or understood—the rules of proper English.


Effective teaching always relies on the talents and gifts of the teacher in the equation, as well as student readiness to receive the knowledge. In my experience, these factors must coexist; one alone is never enough.


As a student, I recall having a history teacher in high school who so enamored me of his subject, I made it my major in college. And at the university, I crossed paths with another great, a professor who inspired me so much that I would’ve taken “History of Trash Collecting” had he taught it! I wasn’t alone in my high regard of him; his classes were always packed.


This appreciation for these men was no lovesick crush on Svengali types either, for neither man would have graced the cover of GQ magazine. They had something far better than good looks: they were wonderfully interesting and could pepper the facts with pertinent anecdotes, riveting their audiences with details that made their subject come alive.


I saw this talent in some of my own children’s teachers.


To this day, my younger daughter marvels at the imaginative zeal that saw her third-grade teacher arm her students with colored chalk, directing them to create a water world of sea creatures on the blacktop behind her school. My daughter loved every day in that woman’s class, and she wasn’t her single memorable teacher!


Years later, when she and I visited the Cathedral in Bath, England, and noted some famous man in history whose name was carved into the stone wall of the entryway, this same daughter hooted in excitement for coming face-to-face with a legend (his name signaled his crypt). She captured the moment on film to prove to Mr. … that she was there, drinking deep of the fountain of history!


Little did these teachers know they were often with us while we drove three thousand miles across England, visiting Canterbury (“Woah … the martyr Thomas Becket was murdered here!”), on to mystic Stonehenge, ending up at the eastern coast’s stark white Cliffs of Dover where the D-day invasion was born.


There was the language teacher who so inspired her in Spanish that this daughter took advanced Spanish in a French-Canadian university.


So, what did all these teachers have in common? They were the ones who expected and demanded the most of their students, the ones who were fair, impartial, always prepared, but also willing to engage in dialogue with questioning students.


They all had one further, critical attribute: they were excited about what they taught, and it showed. No matter how many times they taught their subject, they found new and challenging ways to present the material, for themselves … as well as their students. In this way, they ever refreshed their skill and lit the fuse of intellectual curiosity in their young.


American author Henry Brooks Adams (1838–1918) once observed, “A teacher affects eternity.” If that is indeed the case, it only stands to reason, “A great teacher affects eternity greatly.”


Recently, a teacher I knew died far too early in life. In the family’s guest nook, many former students wrote of her profound impact, as they recalled “a kind word at a difficult time,” “extra help in understanding material,” or her “insistence on high standards.” One after another, they credited her with shaping them for all time, and I thought, How many ever realize such success in life?


As a veteran teacher of thirty-plus years, Biddy wishes teachers much success. They soldier on in a profession that’s become increasingly difficult over the years. The one silver lining? They have the potential to affect thousands … in wonderful ways.

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