I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had two teachers in my own schooling who were role models for me - who lived much of their teaching lives in what I have called “the 10%.” They set a tone in everything they did, and I try to take some of that into class with me every day. But who were they? I thought I would share some details about them, and try to explain why they were so important to me. Then, I want to encourage you to do the same.
The first one was my 10th Grade Math teacher, Stuart Hanlon. Math was not my favorite subject. I was OK at it, but didn’t love it. Mr. Hanlon was kind and gentle to all. Quiet and soft-spoken. He obviously loved his subject, but he understood that not everyone did.
Mr. Hanlon was one of those teachers who say funny and profound things and you write them down in your class notebook. I wish I had that notebook still, but I do remember one of them. One day, he had us working some math problems at our desks. It was quiet in the classroom, but it was raining hard and it was making a huge racket, banging on the roof. Sitting at his desk at the front of the room, he said, quietly: “Nice day if you happen to be a duck.”
He took great pleasure in all of his students. One of my classmates, Billy, was not only not good at Math, he was in his own private Idaho most of the time. Hair and clothes akimbo, backpack spilling flotsam and jetsam as he turned a corner, or landed late into a classroom. Inevitably, always, late.
On this day, Mr. Hanlon had written the number 1 and 100 zeros after it on the board before we got there. (This number is known as a “googol,” and where the internet behemoth Google took its name, accidentally misspelling it). When we had settled down, he started class by asking us to describe this number. We were all dumbfounded, hormonal, useless thinkers at 8:30 a.m., much less for what (I realized later) really was more of a philosophical question than a math question. While our mouths were agape, Billy arrived, spilling pencils. When he settled down, Mr. Hanlon addressed him (with not the slightest tone of annoyance in his voice about Billy being tardy): “Billy - we are considering this number I have written on the blackboard. How would you describe it?” Billy paused. Took a breath. He said: “It’s bigger than a breadbox.”
Mr. Hanlon loved that answer. Just could not have been more pleased.
Several years after high school, I dawned on me what a treasure Mr. Hanlon was. And I wrote him a letter to tell him what an impact he had made on me, and to tell him what I was doing in college. He wrote back, promptly of course. It was a beautiful letter, full of love and wisdom. I remember he wrote: “David, the truly educated man or woman expects others to be neither saints nor devils.”
The second teacher who was a role model to me (and I know to many others) was Jim Bunnell. Jim was a high school history teacher during the school year, but in the summers he was director of a summer program, for which he had to hire teachers and attract students, and manage six weeks of a mini-boarding school. Most of the students in that program were rising 11th and 12th graders, and the type who were looking for more to learn than they had been able to find in their own public high schools around the country.
Mr. Bunnell hired me to teach in the program on what was obviously instinct. When I told him I could teach juggling as an afternoon activity, I think that sold him. He was not just a great high school history teacher, he had just the sort of organizational mind that could be very effective at the basics, but also had a touch of whimsy to it. He welcomed the chaos - the whole raucous symphony that he set up for the summers. I taught in that program for three years, starting as a TA my first year, and returning as faculty for two. These were magical summers. Happy, happy, times. He trusted us, mostly very young and green teachers. He empowered us to be great, and assumed that we would be. His belief that we would be great made us believe that we could be.
At the end of the summer, he did not want to make any formal goodbye or “end of summer” address. Instead, he would disappear, and in our faculty mailboxes was a mimeographed letter of thanks and tribute. He wrote of “going down to his garden, and the bees” and said while tending his flowers, he would think of all the wonderful things we did together, and the students whose lives we changed for the better. It was lyrical, evocative, and beautiful.
So - those are the two teachers who came closest for me to Steinbeck’s description of a great teacher. Please tell us abut yours in the comments by clicking the button below.
Letters of Recommendation
On July 4th, 2015, I was in Moscow, Russia at the United States Embassy. I was working on a teaching exchange with teachers from four Russian Universities, and the Embassy was hosting a party for expats. I have no idea how my group got invited, but we did. So did a lot of other people. It was jammed. When I arrived, it became clear that drinks were on offer at a tent near the entrance. I got in line and was given a drink they called a “Martini Royale.” I took a sip… and immediately turned around and asked for the recipe. I have never had a bartender in the U.S. know what this drink is or how to make it. Despite the name, it is not a martini.
I have modified it slightly in the years since then. Here is how I make it:
Start with a large wine goblet. Put a sweetener packet in the bottom, add two teaspoons of lime juice. Swirl. Fill the glass 3/4 full with ice cubes. Add one jigger of Dry Vermouth. Fill the rest of the glass with Prosecco. Stir. Garnish with a slice of lime pierced by a sprig of mint.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Question:
Who were the teachers who you loved and admired, who inspired you, and that you believe had an influence on you to become the teacher you are today?
Mrs. Tucker noticed that I was reading a lot during free time in class and started handing me books whenever she saw me getting towards the end of one. Most of those books were by Bradbury, Heinlein, and Asimov. Her generosity started me down a life-long path of reading and science-fiction discovery for which I am eternally grateful.
Roger Raphael. My violin teacher from 14 to 17. He was a great violinist and teacher of the instrument, but he was also someone who listened to the troubles of a teenage boy. And when he learned that I wasn’t doing well in German in school, he decided to help with that. I studied violin only in German for an entire year after that. When I had the vocabulary and the courage, I asked him about his fluent German and learned that he had been born in Berlin and that his parents had escaped Hitler, with the family, to Switzerland, and that they were instrumental in setting up an escape line for German musicians. All of this astounded me, and it taught me much more than just where to put my fingers on the violin. But the significance of it was driven home when the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic came to give a masterclass (to the advanced students: not me!). He spoke no English and asked my teacher if he spoke German. Mr. Raphael apologized and said that he only spoke English. When I asked him about it later, he said that he would speak German to me but not to any Germans. The kindness of a man who would speak a language he hated so much just to help me in school has stayed with me for the rest of my life and is my benchmark for what a good teacher is willing to do to help students.