The Art of Teaching - In Tough Times, a Thank You to Teachers Everywhere

The teachers that made a difference in my life, and helped me empower myself to blaze a trail, had something in common. They recognized that it wasjourney, and they were there to help guide the way.
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It's a new school year and teachers are now back in classrooms across America. During these tough times I wanted to write something that might help inspire the new teacher, reaffirm to the seasoned professional why we went into teaching in the first place, and recognize the remarkable gift that teachers in our lives give to us all.

My thinking actually began with a question that appeared one day on LinkedIn in the "Education and Schools" category:

What early-school teacher do you remember most vividly, and why?

It's a question that got me thinking about not just my early school teachers, but teachers that affected me throughout my education, from Little Red Train Nursery School, to my Ph.D. classwork in astrophysics.

Good teachers in our lives are not characterized by the grade level at which you encounter them but by the learning environment they foster. The teachers that made a difference in my life, and helped me empower myself to blaze a trail, had something in common. They recognized that it was MY journey, and they were there to help guide the way. Through a love of teaching, and a passion for exploration, they did not impose their authority, or credentials, or ego. They gently, patiently guided my interactions with a brave new world, whether it was the world of reading or an understanding of the very laws of nature that govern the universe.

The great teachers knew when to first lead and guide -- to get you walking in a new direction, and then ... knew when to gently get out of the way. Conversely my worst teachers were those that treated learning as a one way flow of information from them to us, did not get emotionally involved in the experience, and sometimes in college, were professors who felt they could come down from the mountain of knowledge and we would bow before them. Now that I'm older and wiser (hah) I wish I could take some of those classes over again, and let the great teachers know how much they truly meant to me in that very moment of learning, and let the bad teachers know they were doing damage to their students, creating misconceptions about science, exploration, and the teaching profession that could last a lifetime.

Teaching is wonderfully human, and for lack of a better word, pure. It is important to preserve this noble profession, with good paying jobs, treatment of teachers -- at all grade levels -- as the professionals they are, and ensuring there is a system of rewards that recognizes the great teacher, encourages the good to become great, and removes the bad teacher from the classroom they do not deserve.

This is actually pretty serious stuff. We are talking about a profession that nurtures our children, the next generation, so that they may take their rightful place at the helm of the human race, and steer it in the right direction.

So, to answer the original question (but with my own twist), and recognizing that teachers are meant to arrive on the scene long before you first experience a classroom, here are just a handful of moments that stand out...

710 Tower Court, Uniondale, Long Island -- A Place Called Home, 1964
Thank you mom and dad for making my life an adventure. You taught me so much, It would take a book to do justice to your gifts to me. So let me say that I still have the book you gave to me when I was seven, Horton Hears a Who, by Dr. Seuss. It taught me a person's a person no matter how small, even the Whos in Whoville. That book opened for me a profound understanding of tiny Earth's place -- MY PLACE -- in a greater universe. Please know that I've shared that book with tens of thousands of children, parents, and teachers. You threw a stone in a pond that day and the ripple seems destined to go on forever.

Smith Street Elementary School, Uniondale, Long Island, 1966
Thank you Mrs. Peterson for what you did for me in 4th grade. I remember that special moment when you were teaching us about maps of the world. You pointed to a river and said it flowed north, and then moved on to other features on the map. Everyone else seemed to get it, but I didn't. How could a river flow "up"? Don't rivers only flow "down"? In frustration I raised my hand. You didn't dismiss me. You didn't tell me I'll talk to you later. You embraced my question and worked me through it with the rest of the class in tow. You helped me see in three dimensions. You made my problem a teachable moment for the class. I hope the smile on my face gave you joy. I became an astrophysicist ... and a teacher. Please know that long after that special moment back in 1966, a piece of you lives on in me.

Bronx High School of Science, Bronx, NY 1972
Thank you Ms. Strauss. In 10th grade you showed me the world of geometry and gave me an understanding of the framework of the universe. I LOVED your class. You also gave me an "E/N" on my quarterly report card. 'E" for excellence in academics, but "N" for needs improvement in behavior. To this day it seems like one is in conflict with the other. How can poor behavior go hand-in-hand with excellence in academics? I know I was a handful. But you recognized it was just me pushing for ownership in learning. Everything you said took my mind in different directions, each path screaming to be explored. You did your thing with the grade, and then embraced my spirit and my uniqueness just like you did with everyone else in the class. I know it was like herding cats, and it took a great deal of energy, but I can only imagine the profound effects you've had on thousands of students. So for all of them ... thank you.

Queens College, City University of New York, Queens, NY, 1979
Thank you Professor Hoffmann. Your class in Theoretical Mechanics when I was a college senior meant the world to me. I hung on your every word. You spoke of Einstein as if you knew him, because ... you worked with him at Princeton. And the way that you embraced your students -- gently guiding us through a brave new world -- allowed us to feel we knew Einstein too. At the end of class I made sure to shake your hand to thank you for the great adventure, and through that touch, I felt connected to a legacy of exploration.

To my parents, and my teachers -- thank you for showing me the way. As my gift to you, please know that I've tried to continue your legacy.

P.S. I emailed Bronx Science to see if I could contact Ms. Strauss. I wanted to make sure it was okay to use her name for this post. Turns out she is still teaching at this national treasure of a high school. So I wrote her, and asked if she remembered me. After all, it's been 37 years. She wrote back:

Dear Jeff,

Of course I remember you...row 4 seat 5.

I read that and I got pretty teary-eyed. That's exactly where I sat. Teachers like her are a national treasure. So here's a thought. Track down an old teacher that meant the world to you and tell them just that.

This essay is crossposted at Blog on the Universe.

Here's another essay on teaching set within the larger landscape of human exploration.

Resources I've put together for teachers of science and mathematics.

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