High School Halls: Our Favorite Teachers (and the Others)

Welcome back to Deep-Fried Friday and my High School Halls series, where this young adult author takes a look at high school back when I was attending (in the 1980s) and high school now.

That Was Then

Was this your high school? I hope not! (Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.)

Her name was, oddly enough, Mrs. Glover (no relation). Standing about 5’2″ in high heels and having a diminutive frame, she didn’t appear to be an imposing figure. But if you thought that she was a lightweight, you would be quite wrong.

Mrs. Glover taught high school choir and had a reputation for being tough yet bringing out the best in her students. When she first came to our high school, choir was not popular. Smart woman that she was, she started wooing the jocks. She would find them in the halls and say, “I want you in my choir.” Once she had recruited a few manly high school guys, choir was no longer seen as a place for geeky glee club types but rather a place where anyone who wanted to sing could gather. And we gathered–high schoolers of all backgrounds and cliques.

She was known to yell, stamp, lecture, wave her finger, and throw out proverbs and wisdom like a Greek philosopher. Anything to get the best out of us. When we weren’t performing up to par, she gave us the “you’ve got so much potential, use it!” speech that sounded as inspired as any graduation commencement offering.

Mrs. Glover reminded me of Lydia Grant (Debbie Allen in the Fame TV series).

Mrs. Glover was an amazing teacher. Because while she taught about music and singing, she taught us more about life. About working hard and not giving up. About respect and courtesy. About using your potential. About blessing others with whatever talent you’ve been given.

And she wasn’t my only favorite.

  • Mrs. McFarlane was an “odd bird” whom we occasionally mocked for the massive bun on her head and the way she responded to every question about the homework, “That was the easiest problem.” However, she was brilliant in teaching algebra and geometry. She loved her subject and was determined that no student get left behind long before that saying caught on.
  • Mrs. Travis was my English teacher for two years. She let me be honest: When I was reading The Last of the Mohicans, she admitted that the first 50 pages were not that good and suggested I keep going. I explained that I would not finish a book in which 50 pages were no good since we were always being told that the first paragraph of our essays had to hook the reader. She let it go. She also taught me that you can break the rules of writing…after you have learned them and only for effect.
  • Mr. James was a former 1960s hippie turned frumpy government and economics teacher. He treated teenagers like we had something to say and encouraged us to think through subjects for ourselves. He presented such a balanced case of current affairs and politics that near the end of the year, we finally asked what his own political persuasion was. We had no idea.

I had my not-so-favorites as well, including a teacher who wrongfully accused me of cheating. Sadly, there are some teachers who made a less than favorable impression and probably should have been working elsewhere.

However, the vast majority of teachers enjoy working with children, are passionate about what they teach, and will go to great lengths to instill knowledge and wisdom in those students willing to listen and study. Believe me, they don’t do it for the money.

This Is Now

Of the five members of my family of origin, three have taught in public schools. Teaching others has been a passion of my family in general, and I am very proud of my family for what they do. I have learned from them how teaching these days is different from when I was a kid.

First, those pesky tests. Thank heavens I didn’t have to take a state-administered test to pass from one grade to the next, but they are widespread in today’s schools. Teachers are pressured to teach students according to the test’s objectives, and students are pressured to perform well on these tests.

Second, parents advocate more for their kids. This has plusses and minuses. Some kids need a parent advocating for them in school when things are not going well. Some kids, however, misbehave and disrupt, and teachers get parents in their face advocating for their bad behavior. And there are the “helicopter parents” who may not get in the teacher’s face, but they can’t seem to let go and let their kid do things on their own.

Third, there is a lot more training involved. Teachers typically have college degrees in their field, teaching certificates, and requirements for continuing education. The field of research in education has expanded drastically, so new insights and techniques are passed down and around through workshops and staff training. I’m amazed at how effective math teaching to my kids has been, and I attribute that somewhat to learning how to best teach math to kids.

Fourth, teacher have less freedom than they used to. Federal regulations, state objectives, and district plans often dictate exactly what will be taught and when. Despite the additional training teachers receive, they are often not given freedom to teach a subject in the way they see fit. Sadly, this micromanagement is one reason I hear for teachers leaving the field of education.

Fifth, oh my, the technology! Technology has been incorporated into the classroom in ways I could not have imagined as I sat in 10th grade computer class with a blinking cursor on my screen. Today’s teens have assignments to research online, blog and chat about ideas and teaching units, create audio/visual projects with YouTube and presentation software, and much, much more. Many districts are also starting to allow students to use their cell phones and tablets and laptops at school for academic purposes. These high schoolers really are the wired generation.

Yet even though some things change, a great teacher is still a great teacher. Outside of a parent stressing the importance of education, the most influential factor in a child’s academic success is a quality teacher.

Today my hat is off to those men and women who take on the education of our children, through public schools, private schools, tutoring, and homeschooling cooperatives. It’s not an easy job, but when it’s done well, teachers make a lasting impact. Think about all of the movies that feature an outstanding teacher: Stand and Deliver (1988), Dead Poets Society (1989), Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995), October Sky (1999), and more. Think about those who have made an impact in your life through teaching you.

Great teachers bring out your best! (Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.)

Now tell me about your favorite teachers. And maybe a couple of not-so-favorites, if you have an interesting story there. What do you think has changed about teaching high school? Have ever taught school yourself?

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26 thoughts on “High School Halls: Our Favorite Teachers (and the Others)

  1. I suddenly feel inspired to watch DPS again. Love that movie.

    If we’re talking just the high school years, sadly, I can’t think of any outstanding favorites. My drama coach senior year was the best, but she wasn’t technically my teacher for anything. You’d think an English teacher…. but no. My love of writing came naturally so I didn’t have to rely on an amazing English teacher to instill it in me. Fortunately. Because none of them were memorable.

    My favorite teacher of all-time was Mr. Nurse, who I had for both 4th and 5th grade. He was fun and expressive and made us feel like individuals that each had our own voice, something unique to say, instead of one faceless mass of students. I was an extremely shy kid. He never made me feel bad or wrong for this, but gave me opportunities to gradually break my shell. He was also the first/only teacher that effectively fostered in me a love of science.

    1. I had a fabulous 4th grade teacher too! A man as well, which was unusual in elementary. I loved hearing about your favorite, Lydia. He sounds like a wonderful teacher!

  2. Oh, and I almost forgot…
    Another great movie that features a life-changing teacher is MONA LISA SMILE. (Julia Roberts is their Art History professor). Technically a women’s college, not high school, but still the same concept.

  3. My favorites were my junior and senior year A.P. English teachers, Mr. Conde and Miss Phillips. They let me write papers about Rush songs! Some of my friends had another English teacher, who talked to the trash can. She’d shake her finger at it and scold it (mumbling – they never heard exactly what she said). I still LOL when I tell my daughter about that one.

    1. You got to write papers on Rush songs? I have to know which ones, Jennette. I am a Rush fan, and I’m combing through their discography in my head wondering which ones lend themselves as topics for an English paper. 🙂 That is awesome!

  4. I loved Mona Lisa Smile, that Lydia mentions up here.

    I didn’t really have any HS favorite teacher. I had a favorite college professor, a fun woman that taught me tons of classes under my Graphic Design major.
    However, I can honestly say I’ll always remember one HS teacher … the one that introduced me to the writing world. Her name is Marisa Perobelli (in Brazil we call our teacher by their first name). I was 13 and already loved reading, but she divided the classes in groups and told us to write a short book by the end of the semester. I was grouped with my BFFs, and I took over. They would go to my house to eat chocolate cake while I wrote LOL I didn’t let them touch the thing, only to read it lol The next year, we had the same project and I wrote a longer book. Then, after that, I didn’t stop writing. But it was for fun, you know. I only started thinking about getting published about 4 years ago …
    So, yeah, I’ll never forget her 😉

    1. I bet your BFFs were quite happy to let you do the writing. It sounds like Marisa’s goal of having y’all write a short book was a great one! Good for you, Juliana. And I’m glad you’re still writing.

  5. Well…. For grammar school and high school I was taught by nuns and sadly to say, a good majority of them seemed to hate children and I cannot for the life of me understand why they were teaching. Even though I received a good education and went on to college, the good teachers came during my college years and not when I was younger. One of my favorite college courses was in a huge auditorium with maybe 400 students and was philosophy. It was all about the teacher and the way he or she was enthusiastic about the subject.

    1. I’ve heard that more than once about Catholic schools. I don’t know why. I hope their approach has changed since we were kids.

      Ah, philosophy! What a great subject. You are so right in stating that the enthusiasm of the teacher for the subject can make a big difference, Patti. It can be contagious!

  6. My two favorite teachers both taught American history – Chester Tucker in the 8th grade and Kathryn Garrett in the 11th. Both were more interested in teaching us to THINK and to recognize the significance of events than the dates they happened.

    1. I had a great 8th grade history teacher too, but none in high school. Even so, I ended up getting my bachelor’s degree in history. I so agree with you, David, that history should be about the significance of the events (and the stories of the people involved) than the dates they happened! Some history teachers make it about memorization, and it’s so much more than that. Thankfully, I had great history teaching in college.

  7. In high school, I had two favorite teachers. Mr Wilhelm & Mrs Hittle. Mrs Hittle was a tiny little 4’8″ little powerhouse. She taught Consumer Ed and Business Law. She was the facutly advisor for the debate team and the cheerleading squad. She could inspire! She always told me that I should become a lawyer. I had what it took…and there were not enough women attorneys. Such belief was amazing. I still remember her talking about her twin boys (she called them Ace & Deuce…age order) who towered over her at 6′ tall. And her Lhasa Apso puppies. Funny the things you remember.

    Mr Wilhelm was our choir teacher…and the first teacher to make me feel truly welcome when I transferred into my public high school Jr year. He auditioned me for one of the extra choirs and immediately put me in jazz choir. I loved it so much that when I made Madrigals my senior year, I turned it down. We still keep in touch. Now he’s just Gary. He’s helped us sing the music for family funerals over the years, and been a good friend to my family.

    I could go on and on about teachers. Mrs Catacutan, my first teacher (kindergarten & 1st grade) who recognized my love of reading early and challenged me. She had me reading the 3rd grade reading books while I was still in kindergarten. Or Mr Behm, my math teacher in 4th grade who showed me that I could figure out my multiplication tables and quite easily when it was taught right. (I hated math until then) Or Mrs Vorwick (my 7th & 8th grade English teacher) who recognized my love for writing and poetry and encouraged my talents. She was the first one to tell me I had a gift.

    Thanks for letting me reminisce!

  8. I had some amazing teachers in high school. Back then there was so much room for teachers to be creative and brilliant. Mrs. Cooper and Mrs. Sullivan fed my love for the French language and, oddly enough, creative writing. I couldn’t have a conversation in French now if my life depended on it. 😉

    Now, I see too much restriction–I hear it from my daughter and my teacher friends. How will the test scores our children earn help them be productive, creative thinkers in society? Oh, yea, they know how to take a test now….can’t solve a problem to save their lives though. How can a test score say what a teacher should get paid? Somebody is benefitting from all this testing, but it isn’t our kids or their teachers.

    There’s quite a lot to think about in this post, Julie! (I won’t get started on helicoptoring, or I’ll be here all day!)

    1. I agree wholeheartedly with you, Diana! All of that freedom for teachers did mean that some didn’t do their job and weren’t checked. But it also meant that some fabulous taught problem-solving and creativity. Great points.

  9. Love that Debbie Allen clip, haven’t seen it in a long time, thank you. Teachers, yes, major influence in my life. The ones that pushed me I remember most. They saw something I didn’t and I find that fascinating. My father was a teacher too. Special folks indeed.

    1. I loved Debbie Allen in the FAME show! She was awesome. It’s interesting that you mention the ones who pushed you, since that would easily describe my favorites as well. Thanks to your dad for teaching, S.J. I agree…special folks.

  10. I can’t say I had any high school teachers who made much of an impression on me. Looking back with the perspective of 20+ years of adulthood under my belt, I’d say most of them fell into two categories:

    * They became teachers after having a family so they could be off work when their kids were out of school. This group was more focused on the perks of the job than actually teaching.
    *They started off with big ideas but found found rural East Texas a hopeless, circular place where no matter how much potential kids had, their socio-economic status determined what they’d be and wouldn’t be. This group was burned out, but they sometimes had good insight to pass along.

    I remember Mr. Fields fondly. He taught 9th grade science and let me cheat, even helped me. He told the kids who complained that, at fifteen, I had already realized more about life than most of them would before the age of 40.

    It was the college professors who really made an impact on me and forced me to apply myself and really *think*. I was an older student, and perhaps I was ready to learn. What’s that saying about the student needing to be ready for the teacher?

    Great post.

    1. Oh, that’s so sad, Catie! But I’m sure that’s the experience in some school districts. I admit that my kids’ district attracts fabulous teachers because the students come from favorable backgrounds, the parents are extremely supportive (regularly raising $50k+ for any school’s fundraiser and volunteering), and the district pays well. (In fact, there’s a joke here that someone has to die for a teaching position to open up.) It hurts to think that some areas have such difficulty attracting wonderful teachers when those are probably the areas that need it most.

      I’m glad your college experience was better. I had some marvelous professors too.

  11. While I can’t say that I remember specifics from either year, my fourth and fifth grade teachers were incredible. To this day, they and the other good teacher I’m about to write about, are the only ones that I would go up to and say hi.

    In sixth grade, I had a relatively new teacher who had only taught choir until that year, and she taught only to the slowest students in class, which was frustrating to those like myself who were gifted. Then, when I would make a comment that made her look “uninformed”, she would tell the class to ignore me, that I was just looking for attention. I didn’t really take an interest in school again until my senior year, with Mrs. Ripley.

    Mrs Ripley taught a variety of subjects, and I took them all. I had her for four classes during my senior year: college english, government, journalism, and I was her student assistant, in which I spent the majority of my time editing the school newspaper. She could make any topic interesting, and she had this way of disarming the worst of the kids and bringing out the best of us all. I miss her so much, but she lit the first spark of the desire now burning in me… the desire to write.

    I wish every student could get the same out of one teacher that I did with Mrs. Ripley.

    Thanks so much for your thoughtful post!

    1. Wow, Mrs. Ripley taught four subjects! She must have been SOME teacher! It sounds like she really invested in you, and it paid off. How wonderful that she ignited that spark to write, Mike!

  12. Late to this, but wanted to say my favorite teacher was my English teacher, Dave Paulek. He believed in my writing before everyone else and pushed me harder than anyone. Had I actually taken his advice, I might have been published ten years ago, lol.

    Wonderful post!

  13. Hmmm…

    My Latin/AP English Lit teacher (I had him all four years of high school). He was really sarcastic and demanded a lot. At the end of the four years, he wrote some great words in my yearbook, things I needed to hear.

    My Geometry/AP Calc teacher was amazing. I’m not really a math person. He made it so easy to understand.

    Bad teacher? I may have to write a post about that one…

  14. My best and favorite all-time teacher I was fortunate enough to have twice: once in 8th grade and once in 11th, both times for American History. He is energetic, curious, intense, engaging and never, ever sits still. Every class began with the question, “Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” and there were days when we never made it to that day’s lesson plan. He opened our minds to HOW to think and analyze, which is the greatest gift any teacher can give. He and I are still in touch thanks to Facebook.

    One of my worst teachers, 9th grade English, nevertheless taught me a lesson I have never forgotten and I’ve told this story to my kids over and over. She gave a book report assignment, one side of a “ditto” page (remember those?) with small spaces to fill in your answers to the questions printed there. I thought the space given was insufficient to answer the questions so I squeezed my answers in tiny print and spider-crawled up the margins and wrote on the back. She gave me the lowest grade I’ve ever gotten in my life (not failing, but close) and told me, “Part of the assignment is following the directions.”

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