Last weekend while I was in Chicago for my high school reunion, I visited one of my favorite teachers and sat in on her class. I was determined to tell her how much her teaching had meant to me. Can you ever do that at the right time? Back then, sure, I knew I liked Spanish class, but how could I have known that her energy and style would affect me almost three decades later.
I’m not great (understatement) with personal confrontations, even positive ones, so I was nervous. I didn’t know whether she would even remember me. It’s always harder for teachers to remember students than vice versa, of course, and because I wasn’t a great student, I had spent lots of my high school time avoiding the teachers I liked the most since I was always disappointing them by under-delivering on my supposedly high potential.
But guess what? She outdid my expectations! I had signed up with the alumni office, so when I walked in to audit her class, she was expecting me, and she had brought two 27-year-old photos of me that I had never seen! They were from a trip to Europe she had chaperoned between my sophomore and junior years. I immediately burst into tears and embarrassment.
The class was great—just as I remembered, and rusty as my Spanish is, I could understand her perfectly; her voice is the Spanish I learned. Partway through the class she got an idea, whispered it to me in Spanish, and handed me a giant dictionary and tiny post-it to prep my vocabulary. When I was ready, the kids and I played “20 Preguntas” as they tried to guess my profession. I had to check in with her a bit, but I managed to play and talk well enough that one of the first questions they asked was, “Do you speak Spanish in your job?” I was pleased as punch. In a surprise move, they did not actually guess “juggler,” but we all had fun playing.
So why was she so great? It wasn’t just the subject matter, although I’d wanted to learn Spanish since I was a kid, and it wasn’t just her energy and enthusiasm, although she kept us awake and alert at a time not much could. The really great thing she did now seems so small I can’t believe every teacher doesn’t do it: when we took quizzes or even big tests, instead of sitting at her desk reading, she would walk around the room and point to places we should “Ojo!” (be careful). Sometimes she’d be more specific, but mostly I remember her simply directing us to revisit our own mistakes. No teacher had ever done that for me.
At first I felt that it was cheating. We were all going to do better on the test than we would have otherwise. She was helping us! Isn’t that cheating?
Eventually, those tiny “Ojo!“s forced me to notice that some tests weren’t just a punishment and that some teachers weren’t actually happy when we did poorly. She wanted us to do better! She wanted to help us think! It changed my whole perception of school.
My formal education is the sum of so many tiny “Ojo!” moments from high school, from college, and from graduate school, but few specific moments stand out as much as that realization that some teachers weren’t trying to make us miserable and were actually trying to help us learn.
When I teach now, I always walk around during tests to see where the students are having trouble. It also helps me pace the follow-up—why spend a lot of time reviewing questions everyone got right away? This week I was sick and didn’t want to breathe on my students, so I didn’t lean over them while they worked. It was hard, and I had much less sense of how they were doing. Walking around, so simple. It’s a great teaching tool that helps me as well as them.
Thanks Marsha Brumleve Wagner and all great teachers everywhere.
After I originally posted this on October 13, 2009, several people responded. You can read those comments here, or add your thoughts below.