I’ve been thinking about teachers quite a bit over the past couple of weeks. I have to admit that, as a teacher, I’m conflicted about what I really think about teachers in general. But maybe it’s not really teachers, but learning that has me torn. You might posit that teachers and learning must go together. I wonder.
This reflection was prompted by the recent death of, perhaps, my favorite teacher of all time. He was a delight to my heart and soul while I was in high school. I know both my sisters remember him with the same smiles that I do. Mr. Humeston, never Paul, was an English teacher.
Many of my friends will wonder how it is that an English teacher… not a music teacher, a piano teacher… would be my favorite. That does surprise me, too; I think it goes to the essence of what makes a teacher, and especially, what makes a good teacher. God, I hope I get to that place someday!
One of the “blogs” that I follow had a question posted last week, long after I started to ponder this thought: What makes a teacher a GOOD teacher? Why did this teacher have such an influence on you, and why did you feel about her/him the way you did? “Ah”, I thought; “that question answers MY questions… I think.”
I’d like to give you a little back-story here. The following are (hopefully) short descriptions of my memories of the most notable teachers I have had. I save Mr. Humeston for last, like a dessert-teacher.
My first piano teacher was sweet, and she loved me. She was very eccentric, but I kind of warmed up to that, as I might not always walk with the other ducks, myself. I think I was her best student. When she died, her sister made sure that I received bound books of music she had owned and used. That was very special; I even have her diplomas from the American Conservatory in Chicago. She studied with Leo Sowerby!
I had two different band directors in school; the first, whom I preferred, left after my freshman year to direct a junior high band in another town. I think he preferred teaching beginners to rehearsing a high school band for concerts and contest. He made me “first chair” tuba player my freshman year. A senior and a junior tuba player might have been described as disgruntled. He liked my tuba playing, but didn’t really look at me as a leader in the band; I had some maturing ahead of me!
My second band director was simply a jerk. He smirked and manipulated. I think he could tell I didn’t like him. He didn’t stack up to the previous man. I was still his first chair tuba player, but that didn’t prevent me from disliking him. I remember that my sister played French horn in the band and was the catcher for the Jesup girl’s softball team. The softball team had a game at the same time as the band had a rehearsal. The band director threw her out for going to a GAME and missing a REHEARSAL! Jerk!
I only vaguely remember the choir director while I was in high school. I mostly accompanied; I played for the mixed choir, and (dream of all dreams) the girl’s glee club. One of my friends, a girl, but not a girlfriend, was the other accompanist. The director liked both of us. We could sight-read, and follow his beat. I mainly remember going directly to the Superintendant and telling him that I felt mighty uncomfortable with this choir director giving this girl “breath support lessons” and putting his hot little hand on her diaphragm. This was back in 1964, so maybe I was ahead of the curve on that one.
I had two piano teachers in undergraduate school. What I remember most about the teacher I had for three years was his most usual comment after I had played for him: “That’s growing!” One time when I had marked some things on my score that I thought were particularly ingenious, he looked at them, accurately told me what they looked like to him, and said, “Hmm!” That was that. After I graduated, I would sometimes go back to the college to see how it had changed. I always looked him up, and he always smiled warmly.
The other teacher I had in college was a one-year replacement while my applied teacher finished his doctorate. I think I learned more from him, but I had a miserable year of performing. It wasn’t his fault; I was spending way too much time on a girl friend. When my “real teacher” came back with his DMA from Northwestern, the replacement seemed to think I should stick with him. I consider myself quite loyal, so I went back to the first teacher. It could have been a toss-up.
My graduate teacher was a major talent. He performed, recorded, and was dedicated to the piano. I learned quite a bit. He must have known me, because his parting words, when he knew I was to become a college professor myself, were, “Don’t try to change everything at once!” Well, another story, but suffice it to say I should have listened better.
I had countless other teachers along the way. Most of the teachers I remember were music teachers. None of them were the best teachers. I have not tried to model myself after them. Sometimes I think I might have learned independently of them. While I have a deep-seated belief that teachers should teach, I know the emphasis has to be on what the student learns. Maybe teachers set the conditions for learning, and expect the students to embrace those conditions. If that is the whole thing, then it seems that teachers are not necessary for the curious. What is it that Mr. Humeston did that makes me remember him the way I do?
Maybe it’s nothing he DID. He liked me; he read my creative writing out loud to the class. Of course that felt good, and I learned that there was something I could do aside from play the piano. But it was more than that. Mr. Humeston had a way of making most of his students feel like they were his favorites! And I’ve figured out what set him apart from my other notable teachers. It was never about him; it was always about his students. He had nothing to prove to us, and he didn’t try to exercise power over us, either with grades or threats of inclusion/exclusion. His smile was genuine, and he probably went home and told his wife about each and every one of us; because we were important. Teachers can’t fake that, especially with students. They see through, even if they can’t articulate what they see.