It’s a cliché that teachers are unsung heroes, that they aren’t paid enough, that they work too hard for too little. We say these things about them — sweeping generalizations about how awesome they are and how much we owe them — often without giving it much thought. We picture a little cartoon of a worm coming out of a shiny red apple clipped to a blackboard and we smile, thinking of how charming the whole thing is. We think of a famous teacher, maybe, like Miss Honey from Matilda, and then we forget about it. It’s a stereotype that has become so ingrained in our culture as to have been rendered somewhat meaningless in practice.
And in practice, we can be so cruel to teachers. Speaking personally, I went to middle and high schools where respect for authority wasn’t exactly at the top of the priority list. And even if the students weren’t throwing chairs at each other and/or the teacher, they likely still weren’t being decent. I know I blew off so many assignments, ignored encouragements to work harder, and turned down offers for help after class. I look back with so much deep regret for being such a genuine ass, even if I know that that is just generally how people are throughout adolescence. It’s the time in our lives when we are constantly looking gift horses in the mouth.
When I think of good teachers, I think of one in particular. And she was a hard-ass. She had no time for people who weren’t going to do the work, and was notorious for opening each class with a quiz that couldn’t be figured out using SparkNotes, quizzes that would immediately ruin your overall grade if you weren’t doing the reading. She taught Literature, and though, at 15 years old, you might not be fully ready to appreciate The Grapes of Wrath or Hamlet, she made you want to learn them. Once you realized that there was going to be no skating through this thing — that she wasn’t here to deal with your bullshit — you started to actually participate in things.
I remember the way the entire class would get into heated discussions about nuances in the text that would have, under another, less-talented teacher, been totally overlooked. I remember how students who normally couldn’t be bothered to care about anything other than who won the lacrosse match last weekend suddenly were hugely invested in Jay Gatsby. The criticisms she would leave on our work, on the essays we had slacked off on or not quite done enough research for, were as cutting as they were hopeful. She would make sure to take no excuses when it came to doing your best work, but would encourage the good that she did see in our effort, the things that we needed to build on, that would eventually make us good students, and good writers.
And she was funny. So funny that you often forgot she was from a totally different generation, that she was the teacher and we the students, that we had so few things to actually relate on in daily life. In everything from scenes from the texts to anecdotes from her own life as a student, there was something funny to be discussed, something to be learned with a laugh instead of a rote worksheet exercise. Perhaps this humor was the most essential part in learning, in making the things we were undertaking seem like activities we had chosen for ourselves instead of something foisted upon us. For me, a student who was more eager to take shortcuts and do the minimum required than to put real effort in, I had found someone who made me want to do my best.
I don’t have her email. I have tried to get in contact with her since, to tell her how much she shaped my view of learning, of writing, and of taking something out of everything we do — even the stuff we don’t like. She probably knows that she’s a great teacher, that she has changed lives and that former students look back on their time with her fondly, but I want her to hear it from me, too. A good teacher is like a beloved family member, someone from whom there is so much to learn, with whom you always want to be at your best and trying your hardest. Good teachers make the process of learning something to be looked forward to, something that has so much more to offer and such deeper meaning than a score on a standardized test.
And yes, there are bad teachers. We know that. We know about some of the failings of things like the Teachers’ Union, and what tenure can do to keep around teachers who are not there for the best interests of the students. But we can’t let the frustrations with the bad apples allow us to forget how wonderful the good ones can be, how much they can shape and benefit a student for the rest of his or her life. If anything, we need to be focusing and praising even more the teachers who are doing a magnificent job, who are contributing so deeply to our future and to the way this generation views education and the value of hard work. They deserve more, and they deserve us to be behind them 100 percent.
If you thought about it, I’m sure there was at least one teacher somewhere in your education that really changed you. (You probably had many that were quite good, but there are usually quite few who you feel made you into a better person.) I think we all owe it to them — and to ourselves — to send them a note someday. We should tell them what we’re doing now, what we’ve done with the past however many years, and how their teaching factored in. They should know about the good they’re doing, the way you would tell a friend or family member who helped you become who you are today. Because a good teacher transcends their position in your life — they turn a chemistry or algebra lesson into an opportunity to teach you how to learn.