It was National Teacher Appreciation Day a month ago. Stop laughing, you Australians.
No, my friends in the US, we don't have anything like that over here, and it's time we did. So here's my offering to Great Teachers I Have Known.
Of course, I have to start with my mother. This was a woman who changed the world in her own small way, by quietly insisting that boys needed to learn needlework and girls needed to learn craft. And so these days, primary school students in NSW are no longer segregated along gender lines- because my mother thought that was wrong, and did something about it. She was outraged that boys couldn't sew on their own buttons. From little things, big things grow.
I learnt what made a happy classroom by sitting in hers when I was very young. It was never quiet, but it was always a hive of creative activity rather than chaos. I'm not a fan of the silent classroom. You may as well have a textbook, a student and no teacher. My mother was my first mentor, and I've always tried to make my classrooms creative rather than autocratic environments.
Then there was my first teacher, Miss Bryant. She wasn't the tiniest bit thrown by the fact that I could already read; my goodness, no. She saw me as a gift to her, and popped me in front of the class to read to them whenever she had bookwork to do. What wonders that did for my confidence- I was a gift, not a freak and an inconvenience. She taught me to write poetry- yep, I was 5. I can still remember the joy of writing that first poem. Here it is:
Down, down, down,
Leaves of red and brown.
Falling from the trees,
Dancing in the breeze.
What insight, to give a 5-year-old the tools and opportunity to do that. Nearly 50 years later, I'm still writing poetry. And I am less surprised than many of my teaching colleagues when very small children produce something wonderful. You just have to open the door.
My 2nd grade teacher, Mrs Williams, was another exceptional teacher who didn't find my ability threatening. She simply set me to writing stories as soon as I finished my work, and encouraged me madly. I never remember being bored, even though I could already do absolutely everything that was on the 2nd grade syllabus. She taught me about extending kids who could already do whatever you had to teach the class; first, know what makes your student tick!
And where are you now, John Hartnett? What a wonderful man. I was lucky enough to have him as my 5th and 6th grade teacher for 'opportunity class' (the gifted stream). He made every child in that class feel special in some way, and so the feeling of being an insignificantly clever fish in a pond of geniuses was never a problem for anyone. I will never forget the compassion he showed to little Sarah, whose family's strong Orthodox Jewish faith meant that she wasn't allowed to join in many of our weekend excursions and activities. She was the one who was allowed to walk out of school to the shop to buy him his lunch (a HUGE privilege). She was the last one to be sat in front of the class with him for a special private chat on our last day of school, and her little chat was by far the longest in a room full of children who worshipped him and clamoured for his time. And none of us resented it, which was his greatest achievement of all. He made us understand that her difference wasn't her fault. He taught me anti-discrimination tactics by example.
He taught me about politics and the power of consensus, by explaining to us that if we ALL agreed on who from our own class we wanted as school captain first, and then voted AS ONE in the whole-school election, we would succeed in getting the leaders we wanted. (Yep, it worked- both captains came from our class.) He put on three musicals with our class in the space of two years, all based around democratic decisions on everything from casting to who would design and paint the backdrops. We wrote a class book of poetry, painted in the style of the masters, raced each other to finish multiplication quizzes, even learnt to swim if we couldn't already (and no, I couldn't- I was terrified of the water- he fixed that). Again, I don't ever remember being bored. He taught me to work at the pace of the children, not the pace of the syllabus.
And then there was the inimitable Miss Ratzer, my Latin teacher in my first year of high school. I turned up three weeks before the exam, having never done Latin in my life, and she got me through it by giving up half her lunchtimes to help me. There was a lot of laughter. A LOT of laughter. Yes, folks, Latin can be funny and fun. It's all a matter of what you're given to translate. She taught me the power of red herrings, the power of hilarity in aiding memory, and the power of simply being true to your word. She taught me that teachers could be a friend and ally to their students, and that this could help them learn. She taught me that teachers could be compassionate, caring and honest. I have never lied to a student, and I've always tried to see their point of view. (She also taught me that this attitude is not always appreciated by the school hierarchy, which prepared me for a life of being more in tune with the students than my colleagues.)
I've probably had more outstanding teachers in my life than most people. It would be nice to be able to thank them all personally, now that I really understand how important they were to me, but most of them are dead now. So please, show your appreciation of your wonderful teachers while you still have the chance!