Who was one of your favorite high school teachers? What made them great?

08m-sxHigh school was such a long time ago, I’m not sure how this answer is going to come out. I graduated in 1985, which basically means that most of the folks I graduated with have kids who have also already graduated from their own high schools (and have probably already celebrated their own 10-year reunions and started to forget about their own experiences, so what chance do I have of having actual coherent memories, all of which is just crazy to think about.) Anyway…this is about my own favorite teacher(s) so let’s see what we’ve got.

To begin with, even though this question specifically states high school, and also states that the answer should be singular, as always, I’m changing the rules a bit. Even though I can remember some very basic things about teachers from my first elementary school, John Baker in Albuquerque (where I spent all of first grade and half of second), and Mrs. Posey (from the second half of second grade) at John Hancock in Las Vegas, who would hit our hands with metal rulers if we were even slightly late coming in from recess (and whom, I hope, is rotting somewhere quite warm and unpleasant), I don’t want to talk about them. Instead, I want to talk about third grade.

The first teacher I fondly remember is Mr. Ziedler (really not sure about the spelling there) from third grade at Saticoy School in Los Angeles. And aside from the fact that he was bald, I don’t even really remember that much about him, just that he was the first teacher who let me be creative, who gave me permission to explore things. This was 1976 and being 8, I was naturally a big fan of Welcome Back, Kotter the TV show, and the character of Arnold Horshack in particular. For some reason, I got it in my head that I wanted to write an episode of that show and Mr. Zeidler, bless him, allowed me the time and space to do that. Not only that, but he gave up class time to let me cast the show with other students, rehearse it, and ultimately perform the thing. I’d certainly wager this was one of the things which led me to where I am now.

The following year, though, we were back in Vegas and I was attending Pat Diskin for 4th grade (if you’re keeping track, yes, that’s four school in four years). As opposed to the other schools, Diskin was a conscious choice. The folks researched and found the best school in the area and then made plans to find a place to live in that district. The school itself was progressive, with programs like “City” where you could earn “money” for doing things in classes and around the school and then use that money to buy things at a weekly or monthly kind of swap meet. They had a bank where we learned about interest and checking accounts. There was the morning assembly, not unusual in itself, but we had teachers who would use their own creativity to write and sing educational songs for us.

My teacher that year was Mr. Kaiser. I feel I was incredibly lucky to have found someone who wasn’t a stickler for rules or rigidity (this was the mid-70s after all) and allowed his students to explore their worlds for themselves. He encouraged me to audition for the school Christmas play and enlisted me to host the end of year talent show. Once again, at a formative point in my life, I was gifted with teachers who put their own egos aside for the betterment of their students and I will be forever grateful.

Moving forward a couple of years, to Kenny Guinn Jr. High, where I was part of the first class to go all the way through – they opened that year! In one of my first classes there was Mrs. Mullally, who taught English and AT (Academically Talented – the “gifted” program). She taught me in both seventh and eighth grade (I think English in both? But certainly AT). Once again, at a moment when a teacher could have put their foot down and kiboshed any sense of freedom and creativity, I had a teacher who encouraged (within reason) my weird and crazy ideas, allowing me and AAron (and a few others) to get away with things no reasonable teacher would have – like rearranging the classroom! At that same school, there was also Mrs. Dannan, the guidance counselor, for whom I babysat and invited me to participate in her family to celebrate holidays like Christmas and Mrs. Randall, another English teacher, who would lend me books (and introduced me to one of my favorite writers, Ira Levin, when she gave me a copy of This Perfect Day). Also, there was Gary Kaempfer, who taught social studies and treated me like a person and not just a student (and instilled in me a love of trivia I retain to this day!).

Now, finally, we get to high school. Interestingly, my memories of both Western (where I went for 10th grade, specifically to attend ROTC classes) and Clark (where I graduated from) don’t really include a lot of teacher interactions. Mr. Mills, who taught history, was a wonderful hard-ass who didn’t take shit, but at the same time gave you respect when you’d earned it. Across the hall from him was Miss McGarvey, who taught creative writing. I gave her a lot of grief when I was in her class, and I’m sorry about that, but I think that even though I frustrated her, she understood a bit about where I was coming from. I remember after-class conversations which were just two people talking, without the student/teacher power dynamic, and those were great.

Aside from those, I do have snippets and snatches of conversations and classes, doing plays in Ms. Statom’s theatre classes and staging a school-wide revolt just before my US Government class but I think by the time I hit high school, I was done with the idea of organized learning.

There’s a line from an old Byrds song:

“I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now”

And I think it applies to me. By the time I was in high school, especially once I’d left the ROTC program and realized that joining the Air Force was probably not the career path for me, the typical teenage thought process that I knew what there was to know had set in. Sort of. I think it was more that I didn’t think these folks had anything left to teach me. I had fallen into believing that stupid axiom that “those who can, do and those who can’t, teach.” Or, as my parents will be quick to note, I thought I was smarter than my teachers, which, to be fair, with some of them, I did. Or, more likely, those teachers just weren’t very good at getting across the ideas of why their subjects were important. At the same time, being in the upper percentiles, I was bored at a curriculum designed to try and keep everyone at the same level. Kurt Vonnegut had it right in “Harrison Bergeron.”

Now, though, I’m much more open to learning from anyone who has anything to teach me and experiencing and enjoying life to the fullest.

And so, once again, I’ve written a bunch of words and never actually gotten around to answering the precise question asked. But I think I got to the spirit of it. Or maybe I think I know more than the asker and am approaching things in my own way to get what I can from the lesson.

*yes, I know almost all of these teacher’s first names and a number of them I’m still friends with on social media, but out of respect for who they are and what they did for me, I’m keeping it a bit more formal this time around.

6 thoughts on “Who was one of your favorite high school teachers? What made them great?

  1. I know I don’t respond often enough to your stories, but this one was great. Thank you for sharing!

    The 2 teachers that stood out to me were both women. One was our 10th grade health teacher, who stood in front of a class of 15 year olds and said “You want to know what having a baby feels like? It’s like sh!tting a watermelon.” The entire class was stilled into silence for the rest of the hour’s lesson on sexual health.

    The other was our 9th grade English teacher, who at the end of the year sat with us and told us why she wore wigs and drew on her eyebrows: “I was a preemie baby, born so early my hair never grew properly.” She had put up with bullying from stupid kids all year, and I’ll never forget the gentleness in her manner of addressing it so plainly. She answered all questions that day with honesty and treated us like adults, not kids.

    1. Yay for teachers who make a difference and treat kids like people! Too many see themselves as powerful figures who need to slap down those who dare question their superiority! (And yes, I see this in university as well as elementary!)

      On Wed, Feb 17, 2021 at 8:43 AM Getting the Hang of Thursdays wrote:

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  2. Pingback: Did you ever get in trouble at school as a child? | Getting the Hang of Thursdays

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