Friday, February 8, 2013

February Excerpt: In Search of a Good Teacher by Jaime O'Neill

In Search of a Good Teacher
Jaime O'Neill
PHOTO: velkr0/Flickr

Not long ago, I stopped at a local bakery for coffee and a bit of pastry, accompanied by my wife and visiting daughters. A woman ahead of me in line said hello, and though I recognized her face, I couldn’t place her. 

“Do you know where you know me from?” I asked.

“I took English from you,” she answered.

That comment is always a little fraught with tension because, when I can’t remember a former student, there’s a possibility that person left my class with bad feelings caused by a bad grade. Sometimes, they just didn’t like me, or they hated the fact they were required to take the course I taught, and they blamed me for that requirement. Over the years, whenever I was at a party where people were making small talk by asking one another what they did for a living, I had grown sheepish about admitting that I taught English because, more often than not, the reply was, “Oh, I hated English when I was in school,” followed by the confession that they weren’t good at it, though they rushed to assure me that they had excelled at other subjects.

In other words, they fell back into the role of being students again, and casting me as the teacher, a person to whom they had to make excuses.

The woman in line at the bakery was kind enough to tell me how much my course had meant to her, and I made the awkwardly appreciative noises one makes at such a time. And, as we talked, I gradually began to remember her, albeit a bit dimly. She was that rare student in community college, one of those who always turns up for class, is always prepared, always does the work. Most probably, her assessment of my skills as a teacher owed as much to her dedication to her studies as anything I did or didn’t do in that class she took from me. Good students are often likely to give the teacher credit for things they did themselves, and poor students are more likely to blame teachers for the things they, themselves, did not do. They would have studied harder if the teacher had been more interesting, or they would have been more conscientious if the teacher had somehow convinced them that this stuff mattered.

I spent most of my working life as a teacher, sharing what I’d learned about language and literature from those who had taught me. I took several dozen classes in order to acquire the degrees that allowed me to presume I had something worth hearing to students who signed up for the courses I taught. By rough estimate, there were 320 of those courses, taught over a span of four decades spent in classrooms at four different colleges. Figuring a low-ball average enrollment of 20 students per class, that figures out to well over 6000 students, nearly all of whom have evaporated from memory. Similarly, the teachers who taught me are mostly forgotten. Those professors who still hold a place in my recollections are a mere handful of truly exceptional people–both exceptionally bad and exceptionally good. The good teachers served as role models for what I should do when I began my own teaching career, and the bad teachers lingered in memory to remind me of what I should avoid doing.

If you would like to read more of this article in Empirical, the February issue is now available at your local bookstore and online at our website.

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