I remember the great teachers in my life as if it were yesterday that I was sitting in their classroom and reveling in the learning. I have been blessed to have had six standout teachers whom I will honour today in the post below. The real take away for any reader of this post is what are the defining characteristics of a great teacher? And, secondly, it is the questions: what have you done to say thanks to those teachers? For the most part, teaching is a often a thankless and low-paying job and there is little way to understand the long-term benefits and/or realisations (ROI) brought about by a great teacher. My call to action for you? Call him or her; write a letter; make a special visit…now before it is too late. And if you need a special motivation, read Mitch Albom’s “Tuesday’s with Morrie.” You might find the urge.
So, who were my inspiring teachers?
I will start with John Peake (or JSBP). Nominally, John was my housemaster, history beak (teacher) and sports coach at Eton College. But, he was also the man responsible for cultivating my passion to learn, who showed me how to teach and live with zeal, humour and sensitivity. I shall always remember the day he led our class outside onto a muddy field to re-enact the falling of the British Square [first time in its history] to the Zulus in the Boer War. And, in the annual athletics competition, our house always excelled. This was in large part because John knew how to motivate every single boy to participate. He also had a habit of attracting some of the better talent, if I say so myself. In so doing, I credit John with laying the foundation for always wanting to be the best I could be. JSBP REMEMBERED
Secondly, I think back to how lucky I was to have known Patrick Jordan (aka PJFJ), the headmaster at my [now defunct] prep school, The Old Malthouse (OMH), down in sunny Dorset. After all these years, I have to thank Patrick for my passion for rugby and athletics (including throwing the javelin). He also was passionate about his Triumph cars which he delighted in sharing with us. Patrick went on to become a highly successful headmaster at Packwood Haugh.
Thirdly, I cite the theatrical Michael Kidson (MGMK), my history teacher for many divisions (classes) at Eton. His theatrics–sometimes hystrionics–always kept us at attention, if not on edge. Michael laid into us with vigour, I shall always remember his criticism of my “woolly” English. Flying wood blocks notwithstanding, he was as generous and kind a man as you will ever find.
Fourth, I cite Colonel Ozzie Ostock, my history teacher from the Old Malthouse. With his authentic Colonel’s handlebar moustache, Mr Ostock brought history to life with his anecdotes. He would tell us vivid tales of WWII and was responsible for having at least one war hero (that I can remember) come present to us in the Gym. Managing to corral the zany energy of a roomful of 8-9 year old boys, he started me on my journey of twelve years of studying history–and a lifetime since. He is responsible for my love the film “The Dambusters”, the story of an eccentric scientist’s invention that devastated three German dams in the Ruhr Valley (Ruhr and Eder rivers). Here is a “fan site” out of England: Dambusters.co.uk.
The most valiant award, however, goes to my statistics teacher, Professor Anil Gaba, at INSEAD. If you knew me, you would know that this could not have been my favourite topic. But, through wit, real case examples and a great deal of patience, he systematically, and single-handedly, made statistics stick. Also, Anil created a favourable environment for social interaction. A soulful individual. Anil is now Dean of Faculty at INSEAD (Singapore campus).
Finally, I would like to remember Professor Terry Des Pres, holocaust scholar and my freshman English teacher at Colgate University. While his classes borderlined on Dead Poet’s Society material, wearing every day the same outfit, Terry excelled in the ‘happenings’ in his own home. Reminiscent of a Salon environment, we would stay endless hours debating and sharing stories, especially on one occasion with his great friend John Irving. Here is the NY Times article covering his premature death in 1987, and a nice writeup in the Colgate Scene on-line.
Voilà, my list of top six Great Teachers is complete. There were, however, other great “moments” in teaching that I would also like to remember, including Professor Mark Rosekind, an FSR*, at Yale University, teaching us about sleep (and dreams). And, on this one occasion, on my suggestion, we decided to hold an entire class outside (on a beautiful spring day). Since the class had somewhere over 100 students, that was a trickier enterprise than might be imagined to do spontaneously. I set up my amplifier and microphone outside our dorm room window and all the students sprawled out on the grass in Silliman College square. And it was the surprise of my sleeping roommate that gave me this priceless memory: There Bert was, sleeping in mid-afternoon and, in the midst of his dreams, he heard through his window a mellifluous Californian accent speaking about sleep and dreams. Professor Rosekind was also great at keeping our full attention by hatching spontaneous studies of his students who dozed off in his class. See here for Mark’s site at the National Sleep Foundation. And here, no less, a blog about Dr Rosekind with one of his podasts. (*Famous Sleep Researcher).
I should also thank my English teacher and sports therapist “Uncle” (aka Unkie) at The Hotchkiss School for giving me another memory of a lifetime. As he walked in this one spring day, the whole class spontaneously broke out singing the Grateful Dead’s “Loose Lucy” in a capella from beginning to end. And his priceless answer at the end: “why me?”
So, why these teachers? The attributes that blare out like a coach’s megaphone on crisp winter morning are: being passionate, being real, being interactive. As Todd Whitaker says in his book “What Great Teachers Do Differently,” great teachers focus on expectations, while the mundane teachers focus on the rules. And, in every case, they were also great listeners and always available for discussion after hours. As you can see, I did the rounds when it came to schools. But, no matter where, there always was at least one teacher that stood out a cut above. Make sure you remember the one(s) that stood out for you!
For further reading on the topic, if you got inspired, here are a selection of other sites and articles about Great Teachers:
TIME magazine feature on How to Make Great Teachers (i.e. how to overcome the low pay de-motivation)
Great Schools website features the Great Teachers’ qualities
Oprah did a show on Great Teachers featuring Mr Clark’s essential “rules” for Children