from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Memorable teacher(s) - whom do you remember? 

NOTE: this diary first appeared on dailykos early this morning (May 29), where it spent several hours on the recommended list. Of greater importance, there was a lively dialog, a total of over 90 comments, less than 1/3 of which were mine (actually much less) where others shared their thoughts. If you enjoy what you read here, I strongly urge you to go read it here. I hope you enjoy.

And now the diary itself

This diary offers my own (good only -- I've been fortunate) examples.

I was motivated to do this by what I did yesterday -- I returned to my college for a Glee Club reunion, in which we were lead by the long-time (28 years) director of the choral groups at Haverford College, William Hartt Reese, who is now 95 years old!!!  There were people singing from as far back as the Class of 1949, which mean that people in their late 70's were still drawn to sing under this man one more time.  I would say that is an indication of his influence.  I will for myself talk about him, several other teachers at Haverford, and one teacher from my high school.  

I hope readers will keep this visible long enough that others can be inspired to offer their memories as well, and that people will feel free to share with one another.

The fold

I entered Haverford in the Fall of 1963 as a 17-year-old student wanting to major in History.   That was because of the only teacher I had had to that point who had ever challenged me.  His name was Thomas Rock, and in my senior year of High School he taught 13 of us Advanced Placement American History.  In those days we took regular American History before we took AP, so we were presumed to have the background knowledge and could explore issues in depth.  Students were admitted only with the permission of the instructor.  When as a junior I went in late April to ask Mr. Rock to admit me, we had a remarkable conversation that I still remember.  He told me that he had looked at my record and talked with my other teachers.  He ran the class like a college course, meeting for a class only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with the other two days reserved for library time and to talk with one another.  He expected the equivalent of 10 hours of outside work per week.  "I know you can do that in 5 hours, so in your case, you must agree to actually work the 10 hours, which will mean you will do the equivalent of 20 hours." he told me.  He informed me that unless I agreed to his terms he would not admit me.  I wanted very much to take the course, mainly for the college credit, so I agreed.

We were on a six marking period schedule.  Near the beginning of the 2nd marking period I went down to Haverford for my interview, carrying with me some of the papers I had done to that point in my AP class.  I remember that the man who interviewed me asked if he could borrow them for a week or so (I will return to this later).  For the first semester, three marking periods, I was the 2nd best student in the class -- Franklin Goodrich Feeley, who would be our salutatorian and go to Princeton, was getting 98's.  I was getting 94  and 95, with no one else getting more than a 91.  I was devouring history, and also beginning to learn how to write and to think.  We got to the 2nd semester, the grades had gone into Colleges, and I slacked off a bit -- my one example of "senioritis"  My average dropped to an 89.   But when I got my report card, instead of seeing that, I saw an 80.  I immediately went to see Mr. Rock.  As I walked into his room he said "I know why you're here, but before you say anything, I want to ask you something.  Do you remember our conversation of last Spring?"  I admitted that I did.  He then asked if I still had anything to say to him.  Obviously I did not.  In that 4th (of 6) marking periods I was not living up to the agreement, I was slacking off and sliding by on talent, a violation of the terms under which he admitted me to the class.  And I realized that by doing so I was not only wasting his time, I was wasting an opportunity for myself.  I went back, rededicated myself to my work, not only in his class but in my other classes, and got 95 for both of the remaining marking periods.  I also got a 5 on the AP examine without any trouble  -- what we were required to produce was far less challenging than the work I was required to do for Thomas Rock.

What did I learn from him?  First, he took the time to understand me  -- I was a very inconsistent student, doing things like scoring around 1500 on my SATs, but working only in those classes that interested me  -- as a result I was never on honor roll and did not graduate in the top 1/3 of my class.  He found a way to motivate me that worked, and as  result I not only learned the content and the relevant skills, but something far more important -- learning how to live up to what I could do, living up to my own talent, learning how to develop some intrinsic motivation.   I have often shared this story with my own students, and it is one reason I try so hard to individualize my expectations of them.

As noted, I arrived at Haverford in the Fall of 1963.  Before getting there I had already met one of the men who would most influence me.  I met Dr. Reese the Spring before when I attended the wedding of   Dave Daneker, president of the class of '63, who married a girl from my home town, Sally Masterson, Bryn Mawr College (our then sister school) '64. The Mastersons and our family were good friends, with Sally having served as an accompanist for my sister (violin) and me ('cello) on a number of occasions.  My sister performed on violin at the wedding.  At the rehearsal supper she mentioned her brother to Dr. Reese.  When I met him at the reception, his first words to me were (I have never forgotten them):  "so you're the young man coming to Haverford this Fall.  Well of course you'll sing in the glee club, and play in the orchestra, and you ARE going to major in music." I thought he was nuts --  yeah, I would do the performing, but I was going to attend as a history major.  Little did I know   ---  sophomore year around December I decided to switch to music, and when I finally graduated (in 1973) it was Bill Reese who supervised my Honors paper (on the songs of Charles Ives), and it was Bill Reese who taught me most of what I know about choral conducting, especially of amateurs, a useful skill considering the 10+ years I spent directing a capella choirs in Orthodox Churches.  Of greater importance, while he could be incredibly demanding both as a conductor and as a classroom teacher, he understood commitment to things outside of his class.  I remember that when I had returned as a 25 year old junior in 1971, I had a long talk with him -  I was serving as the manager of the soccer teams (I had been out too long to still be eligible) and occasionally that job got very demanding and I could be a bit behind in my work -- I was carrying 24 credits that first term back.  Alone of my teachers, Bill Reese understood, because Orchestra and choral groups were not academic classes, and he had had to fight over the years to carve out time for those students who wanted to participate.  I l realized from one conversation that although he never attended an athletic contest he knew which of his students had away games that might cause them to miss classes, and when they returned would often ask had the context had gone.  I learned from this the importance of showing individual concern for students, and the difference it could make in how they exerted themselves in your class.  Bill's introductory music history class was always filled to the capacity of the room.  Through his first 20 or so years one major part of that class was his listening exam -- he would play pieces of music and you would be supposed to identify, either because we had studied that piece (or had been assigned to listen to it) or because it was characteristics of a composer and we were supposed to be able to recognize the style.  For several years one of the highlights on campus would be when Dave Yellin would go on the radio station and run a contest, with people calling in, attempting to identify the pieces he was playing.  It was amazing how many people would call during that time.

My last memory of Bill Reese is something he never told us students,but which was told me by another professor, the late Bob Butman, our drama director.  During the 1950's there was a big debate among the faculty of this Quaker College whether or not to participate in the National Defense Education program, which required students to sign loyalty oaths.  Quakers do not swear oaths, but some on the faculty were arguing that this was an important source of funds for the students and also for the college.  Others were arguing that even though most students were not Quakers, it was an unfair burden to place on 17-22 year olds to make such an oath a condition of being able to attend the college.  As Bob told, it after a while, having said nothing, Bill pointed at the statement hanging on the wall of the Common Room where the faculty met, which was part of a commencement address by Isaac Sharpless to the graduating class of 1888, which reads:

I suggest that you preach truth and do righteousness as you have been taught, whereinsoever that teaching may commend itself to your consciences and your judgments. For your consciences and your judgments we have not sought to bind; and see you to it that no other institution, no political party, no social circle, no religious organization, no pet ambitions put such chains on you as would tempt you to sacrifice one iota of the moral freedom of your consciences or the intellectual freedom of your judgments.

Dr. Reese in pointing at the framed statement said "I thought this was a Quaker College, I thought those words meant something."  Bob Butman told me that the words went into him as a knife.  Bob had been in Naval Intelligence in the Pacific in WWII, but he knew that Bill had served as a cook because although not a Quaker he was still a Conscientious Objector.  Bob then took the initiative of organizing the faculty and administration, the latter then reaching out to the alumni, to raise sufficient loan and scholarship funds so that no student would feel forced to swear that oath as the only way to afford College.

I hope I have given a sense of two teachers who greatly influenced me for the good.  To avoid making this far too long, I will be far briefer in discussing some others who had a profound affect on me.  One was Roger Lane, now retired, who would later win the Bancroft Prize in History.  His first year was 1963-64.  As it happens, he was being interviewed the week after I first visited the college, which is why they asked to borrow my papers.  They asked him what he thought of my papers, and why.  His first official act at the college was to decide how much AP credit I should be granted.  Roger told me this years later when I returned as a 25 year old junior in 1971.  Roger was then divorced, and since I was so much older than the other students, even though I was not taking history (remember, I had switched to Music as a sophomore), we became good friends, and even double dated a couple of times.  He was a superb lecturer, even better as a seminar leader, and always had his classes jammed.  Himself a Yale Summa with a doctorate from Harvard, he showed as much concern for those in his class only to fulfill distribution requirements as he did for those who were intending to become professional historians (and we had quite few, several of whom are now themselves also major prize winners).  He also got the College involved with the aiding the African-American community in Ardmore, helping to establish and run a summer day camp that provided a place to learn and play and grow for the young people of that community.

There are many more great teachers of whom I could write, but I will end with the late John Davison, who passed in 1999.  John was himself a Haverford graduate, in fact the very first Music Major in the history of the college, graduating in 1951.  He did graduate studies in composition at Harvard and at Eastman School of Music, counting among his teachers Randall Thompson, and he returned to the College in 1959, where he was professor of Composition until ill health forced his retirement shortly before his death.

I first met John as a freshman.  That's because he was assigned as my faculty advisor, even though I had said I was coming as a music major.  At first I resented that, but by the end of the year, even though my advisor for Sophomore year was going to be Roger Lane, I was glad I had had him.  John was not yet married, and thus had somewhat more time for his advisees than did some other faculty.  He never lost his almost childlike innocence, and always saw the best in others.  When I almost flunked out my first semester (despite the experience of Tom Rock in high school , I was still very immature), he intervened on my behalf.  We began a life-long friendship, and when years after having dropped out of Haverford twice and NYU once, I finally decided to finish my undergraduate studies, he was a major reason I returned to Haverford.  The administration was admittedly reluctant to have me back, but John argued on my behalf, and as my advisor did not object when I took on 24 credits my first semester back.  I would up double majoring in music history and music theory, and senior year was already taking a doctoral course at Penn through our academic exchange.

What I want to share of John is perhaps the most important thing I have ever learned from any teacher.  John taught the first semester of beginning theory and composition.  Originally he had taught all the composition and theory, but by the time I returned there was another composer, the very gifted and difficult Harold Boatrite, on faculty.  Harold taught the end of the 2nd and 3rd semesters of the two-year introductory sequence, but John always taught that first semester.  He would have many students trying their hands at writing music for the very first time.  Quite frankly, many of their efforts were really lacking in value or musicality.  John would always play pieces, try to find something good he could say and demonstrate and then have us listen again.  If things needed improvement (as they often did) he would offer it not as a criticism but as a suggestion of how to make things better.  

It was amazing to see students bloom under his care.  No, few became music majors, and not that many more went on to the 2nd year of composition.  But John firmly believed in the statement from St. Paul to hold fast that which is good.  He lived his life that way.  And in the process,a young man who had grown up in a household where somewhat negative criticism was the most common form of expression began to learn something about expressing affirmation for those who were willing to take risks and try.

I have gone on long enough.  I carry a piece of each of these four men in me, as a person, and most assuredly as a teacher.  I do not come close to living up to the excellence each offered, but then I am not supposed to.  Each would tell me, as Roger Lane often did, of the importance of finding my own way, of taking from others what was appropriate, but even as I admired other things not attempting to model myself on a different person.  I have offered this diary in hopes that others will be inspired to write about their memorable teachers.  Perhaps we thereby can all become a bit more inspired.

And if the teacher who made a difference for you is still alive, even if no longer teaching, call her, visit him, write a letter.  Let all who made such a difference know it.  Those of us who teach do not always know what impact we have had upon those who pass through our classrooms.  I know the greatest reward from my own teaching is the thanks I get, sometimes years afterward, from those I taught, especially those about whom I could never be sure I was serving them well.

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