Earlier this evening, a friend and I were debating which players would fill the roster of our what we would consider our best baseball team. We debated stats, of course, and character and other intangibles. As an educator, I began to think about my best K-12 teachers. Who are they and what made them the best I had? What were common traits?

For the sake of brevity, and to ensure that I selected only the absolute best, I have limited the list to five. I’ve set no criteria for what makes teachers great, other than I believe I learned from them and hope some of their qualities appear in my own teaching.

I present them in alphabetical order with brief thoughts on the qualities of each:

Carol Barnett (2nd and 4th grade): Some would say she’s strict. I think she was clear in what she expected and demanded that students meet those expectations. She had no time for misbehavior or whining.

I never wanted to disappoint her because she seemed intensely determined that her students learned — especially how to write. She also acknowledged that I was a good athlete when explaining the meaning of “agile.”

Bob Bires (AP English Language and Comp): He was known among students as “Rockin’ Bob.” He was different. I cannot recall ever seeing him lose his composure or showing a hint that he lacked confidence that his students would succeed. He had an easy-going personality, but this didn’t mean he didn’t care. He was a guide, sharing writing samples and conversing with us about them, letting us know our opinions mattered. And he encouraged us to take chances in our writing, something I didn’t truly take to heart until years later. His comments on our papers were as concise and insightful as a medical diagnostician.

Perhaps most importantly for me, he took time to listen to 16-year old me as I fought back tears, explaining how another faculty member made me feel worthless.

Bill Jamieson (8th grade honors English): I think he was the first teacher I had who was not afraid to pull back the curtain on schooling. That is, he paid nominal attention to the rubbish, acknowledging it as what it was. He focused on the relevant.

He also seemed fearless: we had class subscriptions to Time magazine, and he was confident enough to lean on the publication as a curricular tool. With fourteen-year olds. We also read a Melville play — Billy Budd — that contained more adult language than I’d ever seen in a book. Maybe that’s why I felt comfortable reading Rabbit Redux as a parallel novel the following year. We were growing up, and he let us (within limits) tackle grown-up matters.

John Pataky (Algebra I Honors and Algebra II Honors): I failed my first test ever as an 8th grader in his class. I failed my first two tests ever in that class. His assessments usually consisted of four to six problems. Even during tests on which I scored 100%, I had moments of doubt and struggle. It’s not that he didn’t teach us how to do these problems; it’s just that we had learned principles and we’re now applying them to rigorous work. We had to trust what we learned, even when a problem’s answer seemed bizarre.

He had a dry sense of humor and could be churlish at times. He was hell-bent on following rules: he gave me my only tardy when the bell quit ringing as my foot touched ground inside the classroom.

Michael “Woody” Woodward (U.S. History and AP U.S. Government): Dr. Woodward was a hurricane of enthusiasm, knowledge, and unyielding humor that sometimes became sarcastic (“Thou shalt not use sarcasm in the classroom,” he mockingly said as a punctuation for some of his quips). Sometimes in the midst of lecture/discussion, he might recall an interesting tidbit he’d read, stop mid-sentence, race out the room and across the hall, return with a book in hand, and read the pertinent passage to the class. He continually exhorted us to read not just from our texts but from books like One-Night Stands with American History.

He was also one of the first (and few) teachers who spoke to me directly after class to tell me I was “sharp” that day or that I needed to read more thoroughly. In either situation he was genuine and encouraging. It seemed as if a higher power had stopped presiding over all of creation to whisper in my ear. As a shy kid, I was usually embarrassed by attention, but not from him.

He also spoke to us about Gulf War I, acknowledging only that he had 44 years experience on earth and did not have all the answers, but if any of us needed to talk about our concerns about war, he was available.

So what did they have in common? What set them apart? Enthusiasm, certainly. They genuinely liked what they taught or liked their students or, better, liked both. They all knew their curriculum, and were confident in their abilities. They presented challenges and helped students develop tools to overcome them. They expected their students’ best efforts. And they expected the best of themselves. Teaching was not “just a job.”

Their personalities varied. Maybe they were the right people for their time in my life. Some had tight boundaries, others were more lenient. Some were jovial. Some dropped in bits and pieces of humor, just enough to reassure us they were human. Some were more generous with their time and efforts with individual students. Some were on stage — showmen who owned the room. Others let us feel like it was as much our room and our floor and our opinions and questions that mattered and drove the course. In the end, though, none of them were fake. If there’s one thing a kid can detect, it’s a disingenuous adult.

Who were your best teachers? What did they have in common? Please share.

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