Neuroscientists recognize the importance of teachers. Teachers are probably the only professionals that deliberately and strategically build brains. Dr. Stanislas Dehaene, the author of Reading in the Brainand The Number Sense,has published research demonstrating how literacy education alone augments our visual-spatial and language skills. Yet, many don’t appreciate how difficult teaching is or how it impacts our lives. When any of us considers influential people in our lives, people who shaped our sense of self or modeled future success for us, a special teacher is often on our list. Favorite teachers are often those who do three things for us: make us feel smart, take us under their wing to develop what they see as special skills, talents or abilities, and model for us how to proceed to realize our goals.
My list of special teachers contains two who meet those criteria. My first was Mrs. Bandy. She was my first and second grade teacher (I was very lucky to have her for two years). I was a middle child in my family, third out of four children, and as such my parents were very busy trying to help my older siblings get through high school and into college and take care of my little sister. As most middle children who read this blog can probably identify with, I learned to demand little and “get along.” I knew how to keep quiet. But, when I entered school I did not have a great deal of confidence.
Mrs. Bandy made me feel very special and took me under her wing. Reading was not easy for me so she put me in my own reading group. I wanted to be one of the “Busy Bees” but she told me she thought I might like different books than those they read (even though I noticed we all read Dick and Jane). It wasn’t until years later that one of my classmates told me that “The Busy Bees” had all the ‘smart’ kids. But at the time I thought they must all envy me because I got a reading group of my own.
I think the episode that sticks out the most as an example of the way Mrs. Bandy made me feel smart is the day we were playing Charades during share time. That day we were acting out fellow classmates instead of the usual book or movie title. I had no idea what I was supposed to do so when it was my turn I got up and just acted very flustered. Rather than be critical Mrs. Bandy laughed whole-heartedly and said, “That is so clever! You have acted out yourself!” I left school that day feeling very clever indeed and held on to that memory for many years. By cheering me on when it was obvious I was bewildered, she helped me recognize that it is good enough to just give something a try, even if you are not certain what is expected. To this day, no matter where I am, no matter what challenge is put before me, I hear myself saying, “just try.” It doesn’t matter if I am the best, or smartest or fastest. What matters is that I give everything my best effort. And today, as a teacher myself, I try to model her approach and applaud all of my students as much for their effort as for their accuracy.
I had to wait almost twenty years for my other favorite teacher. Dr. Gerald Canter was a college professor of mine during graduate school at Northwestern. I took three courses from him and he mentored my Ph.D. dissertation. He was a brilliant lecturer, very dynamic and engaging. He inspired me in many ways. First, I tried to emulate his teaching style. But more important, I think, like Mrs. Bandy, he made me feel smart and competent. He encouraged me at every step. In his courses, unlike many professors who gave multiple choice tests, Dr. Canter gave essay tests. He did not use test readers but he personally read every test carefully and took the time to make thought provoking and stimulating comments. His comments helped me to become a critical thinker and improved the cogency of my writing. Dr. Canter later provided strategic guidance during my professional life. He alerted me to teaching positions he thought I should consider, helped me conduct research, write journal articles, and develop effective teaching skills. All he ever asked of me in return was that I do the same for young students when I became established. I have tried to live up to his expectations my entire career.
The best teachers guide, inspire, encourage and provide us with a love of learning. Ah yes, and they build brains. How fortunate we are to have had a few marvelous teachers pave our way toward a successful adult life.