Most of us remember teachers we liked and those we did not, but sometimes even the teachers who seemed difficult later become the teachers we learned much from. Other times that’s not the case and a difficult teacher is remembered negatively.
But fortunately, most teachers make democratic public schools work, and many children move on to succeed in college and careers because of them.
Here veteran educator Paul Bonner remembers one such teacher. It is also often the little kindnesses that children remember the most.
By Paul Bonner
As I recall, it was shaping up to be a great day, perhaps a stupendous year. It was the spring of 1971. There were signs that I was beginning to improve my academic prospects. I was in fifth grade. Schools tracked students at the time, and I was in the highest math class for the second year and acing the middle track language arts class. My language arts teacher decided it was time to pack up my things and go down the hall to Mrs. Stewart’s advanced class. Mrs. Stewart was my regular teacher for social studies, science, and whatever else she chose to teach, which was usually interesting, and she was not a fan of my behavior in class. I was a talker and this wore her out. When I arrived at her classroom door for the change, she looked at me from her desk and unceremoniously sent me back to Mrs. Dodson’s class. Now I had no problem with this since I liked Mrs. Dodson and was happy to be back in her class.
Although it might be an exaggeration to say that Mrs. Stewart and I had a love hate relationship, it was clear that I frequently frustrated her. In that year I had a perfect record for poor deportment grades. I remember after one report card that I went up to Mrs. Stewart exacerbated by the U, unsatisfactory, circled in my behavior column. I tried to explain that I was simply trying to get others to stop talking. Mrs. Stewart didn’t buy it.
There was one area where Mrs. Stewart and I got along swimmingly: The Arts. Mrs. Stewart had quite the reputation for the classroom murals she produced year to year and the 5th grade performance her class put on for the whole school in the Spring. She discovered that I had advanced rendering skills and with my talkative nature she would put me in charge of many of our mural projects that received critical acclaim. Another of Mrs. Stewart’s discoveries was that I had a good soprano singing voice. When she found that out, she decided to feature me in the 5th grade performance singing the Spanish Cavalier. I can remember her raving about my singing and I soaked up her complements. The song was long and difficult and there was always a part in the last verse that tripped me up. My voice cracked at that point in the performance in front of the whole school and parents, and I recall the result as traumatic.
Mrs. Stewart has a special place in my pantheon of teachers. She was hard on me but valued my gifts and encouraged them. When I finished fifth grade, I assumed she was glad to be rid of me. Yes, another U for behavior on the last report card. However, I had a confidence in my academic ability going into sixth grade I hadn’t experienced before. In the fall of that year, I entered a regional writing competition and finished third. It was an assignment to write what my school means to me in less than fifty words. Who knew I could do anything in under 50 words? The most significant memory of this award was that soon after it was announced I got a note in the mail. It was a letter from Mrs. Stewart congratulating me for my accomplishment. She noticed and she wrote that she was proud of me. Wow!
I was never the best student in my class, but I hovered in the top 10% after fifth grade. Prior to my time with Mrs. Stewart, I had no concern for such a distinction. Mrs. Stewart helped me understand that I could excel with my gifts in the arts, and in academic pursuits. Her criticism of my behavior was her successful attempt to help me understand that self-discipline was important for achievement. As an educator I have watched teachers support their students through this combination of encouragement and stern expectation. Some have succeeded while others struggle to balance the formula. I am forever thankful that I crossed Mrs. Stewart’s path. She certainly valued the typical academic subjects, but more importantly she impressed the wonders of our greater world to children. This developed a desire for inquiry, understanding, and meaning that lead to a full life for her students.
Paul Bonner is a former teacher and principal is now an education advocate, writer, and public speaker. Find him on LinkedIn.