What makes a good teacher ? Like art and pornography, you know it when you see it. Opinions can vary, and I’ve had school administrators who wouldn’t recognize a good teacher if they bumped into Socrates in the Athenian marketplace, or listened to Jesus in a Jerusalem temple.
Full disclosure – I taught for thirty one years. Was I any good ? Not for me to judge. I probably connected with some, and missed the mark with others. I’ve heard it said that everyone deserves to have had one excellent teacher in their lifetime and if you’ve had two then consider yourself extremely fortunate.
Me ? I’m a baby boomer. My father was the director of the Lakeshore School Board in Montreal and he said that in order to hire enough teachers to fill up the classrooms during those boom years the criteria was simple. Hold a mirror in front of an applicant’s mouth and if the glass fogged up then they were in. So I’ve had a lot of forgettable pedagogues lecture me in a lot of classrooms where I can’t say I remember a whole lot of what I’ve heard. But then again, I’ve suffered more than a few concussions in my day as well.
Not that anything about the job is easy. My father had been an outstanding teacher before rising to the top of the educational heap as the Director of the Council of Ministers of Education.At least that’s what he told me. I don’t even know what that job entailed except that he was able to go on a lot of sweet trips. But I do remember when my younger brother was having trouble learning how to read. Since his son’s teacher was doing such a poor job, my father decided to put his own expertise to use. Grabbing some recipe cards from a kitchen drawer he wrote down some of the key words that were causing difficulties for my backward brother. ‘Who, what, when , where, why’ and a number of others that escape me now. He strode confidently into the bedroom that the two of us shared and held up the ‘why’ card.
“What !,” my brother blurted out. He didn’t have a clue. My father shook his head. Undeterred at the minor blip, he then held out the ‘where’ card.
“When ?” my brother guessed. He was less confident now and I was enjoying it immensely. I suppressed a giggle and my father gave me the glare that could only mean I better get myself under control…or else. Despite his exalted status in the educational world he wasn’t above using a little corporal punishment when more sophisticated, psychological methods were too slow to produce results. The three of us braced for one final test. My father lit a cigarette, probably hoping for some comfort in case his third son proved himself as hopelessly illiterate as an Arkansas hillbilly. He held up the ‘where’ card with a dramatic flourish, as if this would help cue a correct answer. My brother swallowed hard, knowing that this could be the third strike. He wasn’t as used to being disciplined as my older brother and me. Speaking now from experience, a parent is running out of energy by the third child. My sister, the fourth child, never seemed to receive a spanking at all.
“Wheeennnn,” my brother dragged it slowly, figuring that that card would have to show up sooner or later. I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing so hard that I had to dive onto my bed and stick my head into the pillow. I looked up in self-preservation, wondering whether I’d have to protect my posterior, only to be met by my father’s red glare, a look I knew only too well. But he only inhaled deeply on his cigarette and then blew the smoke out his nose. He tossed the cue cards, his now- seemingly useless teaching aid, on the bed. “Study those cards”, he warned my unstudious brother. “I’ll be back for another test.”
And that was it. My brother Terry was never treated to another of my father’s lesson plans again. He did learn how to read, however. I don’t know how.
Terry did have the last laugh at my expense, however. It was years later. I was in my early twenties. I was, as they used to so kindly say, between jobs. I had played a year of hockey in something called the British Premier Ice Hockey Association and had enjoyed it , but not wanting to live under seemingly sunless Scottish skies for the next ten years, had come home again. I worked at landscaping in Toronto, then went out to Alberta to work on construction. After a while, I landed a job as a manager-trainee in Edmonton for the Bay. I had always hated even going into retail stores, never being a shopper, and now I found myself an unhappy lackey dragging myself around the toy department working under a manager I had nicknamed ‘Pigface’. Luckily for me he never found out that I thought he was the spitting image of Porky Pig. I came home and applied to teachers’ college.
My sorrowful predicament pleased my younger brother to no end. Despite the fact that he wasn’t up to much himself, he decided to point out my desperate straits while he, my father and I were watching television.
“David,” he stated firmly, “you better not screw this up.” He was getting our father’s attention as well. “You couldn’t make it in hockey, you don’t want to work in construction or landscaping all your life, and now you’ve messed up in business.” Out of the corner of my eye I could see my father reaching for his pack of cigarettes. My brother continued in his gleeful analysis of my failures, reaching for the climax.
“If you don’t make it in teaching, then you’re just about done,” he decided, using one of my grandfather’s favourite lines about “being done” the way Grandpa used to describe sending his steers to the abattoir. My father was listening. He took a long drag, held it for a second, exhaled, and then nodded in agreement.
That fall I headed to teachers’ college. No pressure whatsoever. (to be continued.)