Say What?
By Don Staheli

He loved the teacher who allowed him to keep a white rat in his desk.

When we send our children off to school we can, for the most part, have a high degree of confidence that they will receive an adequate educational experience. The teachers are usually dedicated, possess a reasonable understanding of the course material, and have in mind the best interests of the students.

I am grateful for the corps of educators who guided my years of schooling and gave so much to my own children as they walked the sometimes tedious but often exciting pathway of formal education.

The best teachers seem to be those who communicate to both the mind and the heart of the student. Miss Thompson (it was really Mrs. and, yes, I was a disappointed nine-year-old when I learned she had another man in her life) not only taught me the art and wonder of reading but also empowered me as a person.

By allowing me to keep a pet white rat in my desk during the day and by providing an aquarium for the pollywogs we caught after school at the pond, she sent the message that even our childish notions could be made meaningful and become learning experiences. In that case, I learned that cleaning up after a white rat that has been all day in a desk is not particularly pleasant.

I had another teacher who ranted and raved to control the class and seemed bent on making each of her students afraid of her. She sent a message also. She appeared to be telling us that education was not supposed to be fun and that if you wanted to have a good time you had to do it surreptitiously when you thought you would not be caught in the useless act. I have only vague memories of that year and can’t even remember the teacher’s name. I guess I’m in a sort of denial that such a school year ever occurred in my life.

Obviously, taking full advantage of our educational experiences does require a great deal of effort. Learning seems to offer almost equal doses of joyous epiphany and downright toil and drudgery. We need to work up a few good brain calluses if we really want to get a powerful grip on the subject matter.

But in addition to discipline, an emotionally warm environment is necessary for the incubation of good ideas and for healthy educational development. Sometimes a deficit in academic excellence on the part of a teacher can even be offset by the fact that he or she really cares about the students.

An educator with whom we spent many years as our children, one by one, rung by rung, climbed the elementary school ladder, was outstanding in his attitude even though his own intellectual prowess was perhaps less than razor sharp. He created a successful climate for learning despite the fact that he may have appeared to some to be less than learned himself.

He was kind of a down-home guy for whom dress for success meant nothing more than clean and modest. For him, the English language was easy, because he did not worry about the conjugation of many of the verbs. “To see,” for example, was used only in one form, regardless of the subject or tense, as in, “I know he’s here, I seen him.” Or, “We seen that movie and they seen it with us!”

I suppose he spent so little energy worrying about grammar that he could devote more than usual effort caring for the pupils in his devoted charge.

At first his grammar grated on our ears as if he were scouring the chalkboard with overgrown fingernails. But it didn’t take long to realize that he was a master at creating an atmosphere of exciting discovery and we could teach good grammar at home. It was a small price to pay for the lasting benefit of a schoolroom in which a nurturing teacher worked his magic and grew the minds and hearts of his young scholars.

These days the idea of mentors has really caught on. To have a dedicated mentor is like hooking your wagon to a rocket. Such a personal guru will guide and inspire and very often help to flatten the steepest learning curve. One such once said to me, “I can teach in you in five weeks what it took me five years to learn, because no one was there to guide me.” He did. I still had to put my newfound knowledge into disciplined practice, but my practice could come much closer to perfection as a result of his beneficent tutelage.

There is a certain triteness to the saying, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” But there is also a great deal of truth in that well-worn proverb. When we hear a person slaughter the King’s English, we might recoil and think to ourselves, “Say what?” But if we listen carefully and see beyond the grammar, we may be in for a learning treat. I know, because I done it once or twice.

People learn best what they are taught with love.


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