We all have those teachers and professors who have made phenomenal impacts on our lives, for good and bad, for personal and/or academic reasons. Teachers can introduce us to new and exciting ideas or convince us to abandon a previously-loved field of investigation, build or cut down self-confidence and self-worth, and lead us to develop ethics and attitudes, for good or ill, that will last for the rest of our lives. You know the ones I am talking about. The good ones I know by name; the bad ones only by year and subject. There was the Native American History teacher in 11th grade who had us fill out pre-made worksheets for a full quarter. I remember none of that. In contrast, Mrs. Carttar in sixth grade was probably the best teacher I had. She was a very classic 1960s educator, dealing with what at the time was really unusual material -- Africa (I still remember loving the peanut chicken stew we ate for lunch one day, and with that class I didn't mind worksheets!), about what it was like to experience prejudice and shunning ("Prejudice Day" was a valuable experience for those on both sides of the class -- the experience was repeated with a flipping of the two halves of the class), and the friends I made there are still my closest friends from high school (with Todd I went to the first Star Trek convention in Kansas City -- we rode in on the Greyhound and my Dad picked us up and brought us home, on a weekday, no less!). Mrs. Fambrough introduced me to Shakespeare, although I had read and seen the plays before. In college there were Mrs. Ridgway, Ms. Mellink, Mrs. Crawford, and Mrs. Pinney, and of course, Mr. Ellis, who was my advisor when I officially declared my major. All were excellent teachers and more importantly, they were mentors.
Mentoring is a lifelong thing, if you do it right. Teaching and modeling are never over. I saw Mrs. Ridgway at my 30th college reunion this past summer. I saw her eyes dip to my nametag, and then she knew exactly what I had done, both during my time there and after I graduated. She remembered that I had written a humour column for my college newspaper, based on the commentary of my (imaginary) cat who was a predecessor in tone of Grumpy Cat. I heard from a co-major from the men's college down the road how she had come to his graduation, held the day after ours, and she was one of the few faculty from ours to attend theirs. It had meant a lot to him then, and still now. Those are the things that stick, and she still is amazing to me. I can only hope to mean as much to my students thirty years on.
That is what it means to me to be a good teacher, to not only manage to develop ideas and knowledge that will stick with someone in the immediate semester, but to engender attitudes and abilities that will still be around in thirty to forty years. I have not been teaching that long, but I am in my 23rd year here, and I have seen my students grown into exciting professionals, in a variety of fields. and I hope to mean to them in the future what my school and college teachers mean to me.
Come below the whirly-gig of glory for more.