This week we join with grateful students, parents, and community members in celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week (May 6 – 12). Many of our authors are teachers or professors. Whether they are teaching an introductory course or a graduate seminar—or writing a book that will be used in those courses—we are grateful for what they do to inspire new generations of scholars.
In a bit of a twist, we thought it might be fun to turn the tables a bit and ask our authors to reflect on their favorite teachers. Who inspired them to enter their field? Or taught them something unforgettable? In short, which teacher would they choose to celebrate?
Author of How to Be Human in the Digital Economy
My memories of my own teachers have faded with the passage of time, but I have very strong and fond memories of my kids’ teachers. New Zealand is subject to the same addiction to simple economic measures that short-change workers who offer benefits that are difficult to quantify. If only we can get teaching automated in the way that the technocrats judge to be the right compromise between cost and student performance in standardized tests. We don’t yet have the teacher-bots, so in the meantime teachers can enjoy a few final scraps. Soon they’ll join accountants and Uber drivers in being automated out of existence. As with Uber drivers, they should understand that complaining about pay and conditions merely accelerates this end. I hope that the digital revolution will enable the creation of a robust social economy that recognizes teaching humans as the epitome of a job that only humans can do well. Success in teaching children how to be good humans can’t be reduced to a few test scores. It’s best done by exemplifying it. My kids’ teachers do this. They must really love their jobs because they certainly aren’t paid in a way that reflects the immensity of their contributions.
James W. Cortada
I had just returned to the United States after a decade of living in the Middle East and Europe, entering now the 7th grade at an elementary school in Falls Church, Virginia. It was 1959. One of my teachers, a “Mr. Lincoln,” exposed me to American history for the first time. A fine lecturer, he had passion for his subject, not the least of which was for the history of the American Civil War. He took us on field trips around Northern Virginia and in the nation’s capitol where we stood where events played out: Lincoln’s assassination, the White House, tripping through the Capitol, and Arlington Cemetery that had served as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s pre-Civil War home and now was the final resting place of Union soldiers and notable Americans. That was sixty ago, and I am still interested in the American Civil War, actually in all manner of history. He is the only teacher I remember by name from before the 10th grade, when another history teacher reinforced what Mr. Lincoln had done, this time drawing me into modern European history. I did not know in that classroom in 1959 and 1960 that a teacher was shaping my life: a life-long interest in history, a BA, MA and PhD in history, authorship of several dozen history books, every vacation featuring trips to historic sites, and to the creation of a home library running into the thousands of history books. Thank you Mr. Lincoln!
My most inspiring teacher (out of many great ones in my lifetime) was Rich Adelstein, who is a professor of economics at Wesleyan University (and an MIT grad!) As a philosopher, it may seem funny that my most inspiring teacher was an economist, but it’s not just any economist who would assign the entire text of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions on the first day of “Intro to Microeconomics.” I was mesmerized. Was this what economists thought about? As it turned out, not many, but then on the second day of class Adelstein said, “and Kuhn’s book shows us why economics is not and can never become a science.” What? Not a science? That couldn’t be right! So I spent the next four years arguing with, and learning from, Professor Adelstein. It’s not every teacher who would welcome and even encourage such intense questioning (and criticism) as I gave him, nor would so delight in engaging with a college student’s raw ideas and take them seriously. The result was my lifelong interest in the philosophy of science….and a living exemplar of what it means to be a great teacher.
Rosemarie Fava was my tenth-grade English teacher. In addition to inspiring me to love the sound of beautiful poetry and prose. She had a sonorous voice. Her reading aloud was mesmerizing and made me want to please her with my reactions to what we read. Out of the blue, Miss Fava asked me if I would like to ‘work’ for her—not for pay, but for access to her office as a private space for lunch and for helping her with paperwork. I had no idea what would happen when I eagerly and nervously agreed, but that access opened the door for the types of conversations we now call mentoring. These conversations allowed me to take myself seriously and to aspire to positions of leadership in high school (the newspaper editor) and to serious thinking about college and after. She was the first teacher to encourage me to consider what I wanted from education and from life, and to want a lot. I try hard to pay her care and investment forward, and that of several other later teachers who mattered to me. I would never have encountered those later ones without Miss Fava—she set me on a path for other kinds of good fortune.
One of the teachers I think about most often is my 8th grade math teacher, Cynthia LaMothe, who not only had the most impossibly perfect blackboard handwriting I have ever seen but also taught me to love algebra. She so clearly loved the subject herself and took so much interest in every aspect of her students’ learning—not just whether we were getting the right answers and knew how to solve for unknown quantities, but also how we were taking notes, organizing our binders, and keeping track of assignments. I learned a lot of math from her, but I also learned a lot about organization, planning, and helping students set themselves up to succeed in the classroom. Now that I teach, she’s the person whose preparedness, clarity, patience, and enthusiasm I most aspire to emulate in my own classroom. Her handwriting I know I will never be able to match.