February 28, 2006
In my post on teachers unions, a few people (from the Liberty Papers link, through email, and elsewhere) took me to task for assailing teachers.
That was not my intent. I think that most of the excellent teachers in our nation are being crushed under the weight of a horrible system that is doing little to support them. The teachers unions have created a system where excellent teachers are treated no better than mediocre teachers, and where the lowest common denominator is the standard treatment for all teachers. The system is one that excellent teachers don’t want to work in, and those who subject themselves to that torture deserve a lot of credit.
So I want to take a moment to thank those teachers who have made me into who I am. I’ve had a couple of truly inspiring teachers in my life, and those folks deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve done for me. You’ll notice a disproportionate number of math or science teachers on this list, which is partly a sampling bias, as I have always been predisposed to those subjects.
Jim Stankevitz – Physics: Really. His last name is Stankevitz. It’s like Einstein. If your last name is Stankevitz, you’re pretty much destined to be a physics teacher! But this guy was truly an inspiration. I believe he’s won the Golden Apple teaching award at one point during his career; if he hasn’t, he deserves it. I had him for both my normal Physics class, as well as the calculus-based AP Physics class my senior year of high school. That AP Physics class, due to a scheduling conflict, was over-booked for its room my senior year, and because of scheduling, there was no other period during normal school hours that the lab room was available. So we were in a quandary. Jim Stankevitz was an inspiring enough teacher, though, that myself and about 15 other students volunteered to come in at 6:25 AM every morning to take that AP Physics class. It’s not often that students will volunteer for AP Physics at that hour, but a teacher who can get students to do something like that is pretty special. In addition, he told me during that senior year about some lectures given over at the Fermi Nat’l Accelerator Laboratory, a few miles from the high school, where they were discussing black holes, wormholes, and time travel. I must admit that about 90% of it was far over my head, but it was truly a treat to head over there and bask in the light of the physics gods!
John Fuller – US History: Mr. Fuller was the teacher for my AP US History class sophomore year. He was part sadist, which was what most of us needed in those days. The first day of class, he told us all: “I’m going to give you more work than you can possibly handle, in order to teach you time management.” Now, that’s not something you want to tell a group of AP students at my school, because that’s throwing down a gauntlet. The students in that class were the sort who had coasted through every lame “challenge” school had placed before us to that point in time, and we really had never had someone demand our best work. We had been dreaming that a teacher would throw down a gauntlet like that, if nothing else than to make us work for our acclaim. Mr. Fuller’s first assignment for us was to give us conflicting accounts, both American and British, of who fired the first shot at Concord, the “Shot heard ’round the world”. The accounts didn’t make a clear distinction of who was at fault, and he asked us to figure out, based on those accounts, who fired that shot. History, up until that point, had been nothing more than rote memorization. All of a sudden someone was asking us to do what historians did! Take the information available, and do the best you can to piece together the true events. That, more than anything, gave us all a new understanding of what history is and what it means to us. History isn’t something you read in a textbook, it’s something you delve into and try to determine what should exist in that textbook! John Fuller was an inspiring teacher. If you got an answer wrong on a test, but could adequately argue why you should receive credit for your answer, he just might change your grade. Not because you got it right, but because you had the right reasons for getting it wrong. The last I heard, John Fuller had headed off to Montana somewhere, which is a bit of a shame. I’d love to sit down over a beer with him and talk.
Mr. Backe – Geometry: High school geometry is a very challenging subject for some people, and the process of formulating proofs teaches the most elementary principles of logic. It can be a very dry subject, and one that is difficult to understand. But Mr. Backe was a veritable comedian. It’s not often that a teacher makes geometry exciting, but when Mr. Backe was speaking, you had to pay attention or you would miss the jokes! In between jokes, you’d learn quite a bit. This was one of those teachers that really made learning a dry subject fun.
Mr. Bielfus – “Junior Seminar”: I have a feeling I botched the spelling on this one, but that’s okay. Junior Seminar was another name for Introduction to Philosophy. Again, this was one of those classes restricted to the students in the “Advanced” track, but this class was one which ignited my love of philosophy, and was probably instrumental in my desire to obtain a minor in philosophy when I went to college. Mr. Bielfus was not necessarily incredible as a teacher in this class, except to the point that he was a guide and moderator. The group of kids in that class were all quite bright, and perfectly able to argue. Mr. Bielfus kept our arguments roughly on topic, and made sure that we had the guidance we needed to hash out what we needed to hash out. As one of the few atheists in a town rumored to have more churches per square mile than any other US city, let me say that the philosophy of religion portions of that class were quite heated!
Mr. Morrow – Algebra II and AP Calculus: Mr. Morrow was not quite like Mr. Backe. He wasn’t the comedian of the math department. But what he had going for him was a genuine love of math, and an absolutely dogged determination to help students understand. If I were to be a calc teacher, Mr. Morrow is who I would want to emulate. There’s a certain amount of concern and care that you can see in the way some people conduct their affairs, and Mr. Morrow had that. I can’t think of any individual quality that made me enjoy my classes with Mr. Morrow, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. I can only attribute that to the fact that he was a genuine teacher with a love and understanding of math.
That basically covers all the high school teachers that were exceptional. There were a scant few before that time (Mr. Knecht in 4th grade, and Ms. Vandermolen in 6th grade), but that was my high school experience. In some ways, it’s sad that in one of the best school districts in the state of Illinois, that I can barely count 5 teachers that inspire me. But after I put together a post ripping teachers unions a new one, I wanted to step back and thank some of the folks who influenced me to become the person I am.
The Unrepentant Individual linked with The Late-Night Miniskirt Defense…
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