Teacher Appreciation Week is coming up. To commemorate the educators who’ve shaped us, we asked Seattle Times journalists which teachers made them see something in a new light.
Most folks can easily recall their favorite teachers: the ones who stayed long after the last bell to help with math homework, or cracked jokes effortlessly in front of the classroom.
But the student-teacher relationship can be bumpy. Sometimes we find that teachers themselves are more perplexing (or frustrating) than the schoolwork they’re assigning. At least initially.
We asked our colleagues in the newsroom the teachers who they hated or feared or distrusted at first, then came to appreciate, or teachers who made them see something in a new light. Some said they couldn’t think of one (we suspect they were teachers’ pets). But many shared stories we offer in the spirit of teacher appreciation week. And if you have a similar story you’d like to share for publication, look for the form on the side of the story. We hope to offer a collection of reader stories sometime next week.
‘Two eyes, two ears,’ and big heart
I thought my second-grade teacher was being mean to me when she kept me after school and made me do my homework over until I got it right. Mrs. (Jewel) Clay ran an orderly classroom and spent a lot of time enforcing rules for proper behavior. She’d snap her fingers and demand, “two eyes, two ears.” She pointed out any action she considered rude or impolite. Our school, Lincoln Jackson Elementary in Clovis, New Mexico, was attended by low-income black and Mexican-American students and Mrs. Clay was determined to prepare us for the world outside our neighborhood. Years later, when I was spending time in classrooms as an education reporter, I recognized that keeping me after school was a gift. She told me back then that I had too much potential to waste and she wasn’t going to let me get away with doing less than my best. I appreciate that deeply.
— Jerry Large, local columnist
The true meaning of character
In fifth grade my homeroom teacher was William Younger, a prim, rather humorless man. This was the mid-1970s, a time of long hair and loose clothing. But Mr. Younger wore three-piece suits with a crisp pocket square every day. Needless to say, we 10-year-olds were relentless in our scorn. But Mr. Younger never tried to charm us. He never bowed to fashion. Once, he called me up to his desk. It was a large Victorian thing set several steps above the rest of the room on a riser. We’d been working on spelling, and as I’d always been strong in language arts, I was embarrassed to be singled out. Horrified, in fact. Very softly, so that no one else could hear, Mr. Younger explained that I’d misspelled the word “character.” And he showed me — quietly, kindly — how to do it right. In all the many years since, and after many excellent teachers, that moment stands out for me — the day a man I’d laughed at in ignorance, taught me the true meaning of a word.
— Claudia Rowe, Education Lab reporter
The day the unflappable Ms. DeRoss broke down
Ms. DeRoss had the composure of an ER doctor. Unlike my other grade school teachers, who often expressed personal offense when my classmates (never me) were out of line, Ms. DeRoss strove for homeostasis in the classroom and in her own demeanor. Come hell or field day, we had to be single-file and silent before being released from her classroom. If that didn’t happen, she’d stand expressionless and still at the front of the line, with hand on the doorknob, and wait. Her calm stayed intact even on 9/11, when two-thirds of my second grade class had emptied by lunchtime.
She broke character once: while she read us Charlotte’s goodbye to Wilbur in Charlotte’s web. I was doodling and looked up when I heard her voice seize. She began to sob so hard she had to hand the book over to a boy in the first row. He finished the paragraph for her: “Nobody, of the hundreds of people who had visited the Fair, knew that a grey spider had played the most important part of all. No one was with her when she died.”
I liked Ms. DeRoss, but until recently, she never ranked among my favorite teachers, nor did I form any sort of personal connection with her. The day she cried over a fictional spider, I got the hint that things weren’t always as easy for her, or for other grown-ups, as they appeared.
— Dahlia Bazzaz, Education Lab engagement editor
Organizational skills I hated — until they saved me
Mr. King was my 8th grade English teacher.
He had a reputation of being very demanding and required a heavy writing and homework load. He rarely smiled and was rabid with his red pen. We spent the first six weeks learning how to outline and write a thesis statement. No whining allowed. I disliked it and him from the start.
What I didn’t realize was that he was laying the foundation of basic writing skills, which I could reproduce under stress. Years later, while taking an essay exam in college, I simply ran out of time to get an answer written down. In desperation, I outlined the answer using the skills that were pounded into my 8th grade brain. Much to my surprise, I received full credit for the answer. The professor actually commended my ability to get everything down on paper in a logical format. He commented that it was clear I knew the answer and had points to back it up and had simply run out of time.
I’m sure I was unappreciative in 8th grade. I thought the homework was unreasonable and Mr. King was mean and purposely trying to make my life miserable. I was wrong. He was making sure we practiced and comprehended the skills he was trying to teach us. Those lessons are ingrained and I still use those organizational skills today.
— Miyoko Wolf, news researcher
Life’s a marathon, not a sprint
David Gosse was my math teacher for three years at my prep school in Byfield, Massachusetts. My sophomore year, I struggled mightily in his class. Got a C second semester and bombed out with a D+ on the final. I stewed about it all summer and figured I was doomed to failure in math. I come back for junior year, and I find out I’m in HIS pre-calculus class! We never talked too deeply about it, but the fact he stuck with me after my sophomore debacle spoke volumes about him, I thought. He didn’t just pass us through and forgot about us as students. Frankly relieved at a second chance, I thrived in his class junior year and was in his AP calculus class senior year. I passed the AP exam (secretly one of the prouder academic achievements of my life) and he even wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I applied to his alma mater Bowdoin College (though I ended up going to Stanford). The moral of the story to me was: Life’s a marathon, not a sprint. One should not be so hasty in their judgments of people, because he certainly wasn’t with me.
— Ed Guzman, assistant sports editor
Lessons beyond the textbook
One teacher who at first puzzled me was Mr. Walker, my geometry teacher at San Mateo High in northern California. He sported a goatee, wore suits and didn’t conduct his classes like any other teacher I’d ever met. We never opened the textbook, although he assigned parts of it for homework. In class, he lectured, and we all took notes furiously, trying to grasp what he was talking about, because it was well beyond anything we’d learned previously. Tests, based on those lectures, were never announced. They usually had 5-10 questions, and students who did the best got about half the questions right. Once, he asked us to memorize Pi to as many places as we could. I can’t remember how many I crammed into my head, but I do remember wondering if the real test was whether we would fall for such a useless task. I’m still not sure why Mr. Walker did what he did, but he clearly wanted to stretch us, and I liked being stretched. Our final project was to type up all our class notes — I still have my bound 79-page document — and they included a few of Mr. Walker’s frequent sayings. I still remember the one from mathematician George Polya, maybe because it fits journalism as well a mathematics: “Don’t believe it, don’t reject it, don’t accept it, just examine it.”
— Linda Shaw, Education Lab editor
Acknowledging the limits of our knowledge
I was a freshman at North Linn High School studying math, specifically the rules around parallel lines. I approached my teacher, Mr. Bolke, to clarify my understanding of the rules and he confirmed I was understanding them correctly, and then in the moment before I walked away from his desk he commented that my understanding was correct if the math theories were indeed true and that parallel lines could be drawn to infinity and never cross.
It was a bit of a mind-blowing moment for me, to have a teacher admit that what he was teaching was based on our best understanding, not on some immutable rule. It opened me to questioning the edges, finding out if there are possibilities outside the most commonly understood situations.
Years later, I met him and recalled the incident and his statement with the intention of thanking him for making it. He totally denied it could have possibly occurred, said he never would have said something ridiculous like that. It reminds me how tough the job of teaching can be, trying to balance the need for boiling down the details and pulling minds forward to the wider possibility of critical thinking. Mr. Bolke hit the balance for me that day even if he later questioned its value.
— Matt Ironside, senior producer for operations
A literal wake-up call
In 11th grade, I had an English teacher who came off as old, cranky and somewhat unpredictable — you were never quite sure what could set him off. That was a complete change from the English teachers I had the previous two years of high-school; they were more calm and collected, but their lessons were by-the-book and uninspiring.
I had a figurative and literal wake-up call when the aforementioned old-and-cranky teacher yelled at me for dozing off during his first-period class. (No one talked about school start times back then!) For several days after, I felt embarrassed and resentful toward my teacher. But over time, I came to realize his sometimes-volatile demeanor was a sign of his passion for writing and literature, and that my time in his class would be a lot more valuable if I rose to the occasion. I ended up taking two honors classes from the same teacher senior year, and I look back on my experience in his classroom as fundamental to my growth as a reader, writer and critical thinker. Out of the handful of reference letters I solicited for college applications, his was the most heartfelt and made me the most proud.
— Caitlin Moran, Education Lab newsletter editor
The value of patience and subtle mentorship
Yvonne Cadwallader easily claims a spot as one of my favorite — and most frustrating — English teachers in high school. Early on in the year, she recognized my love for reading and writing and helped me present my ideas strongly and coherently on paper. In person, though, she and I often didn’t see eye-to-eye and too often my innate skepticism of authority pushed me to challenge Ms. Cadwallader whenever we disagreed on an assignment or grade. But she never let my teenage tantrums get to her and years later I realized she actually used those moments to teach me how to funnel my passion into making a better argument and thoughtfully reconsidering my original opinion. It’s a skill I still try to refine, but I owe Ms. Cadwallader a lot for her patience and subtle mentorship. She retired before I returned to Las Vegas to report on education, but hope she saw my byline every once in a while and knew my work was a byproduct of hers.
— Neal Morton, Education Lab reporter
Making it out of ND
It was the spring of 2011, and I was just months away from graduating from Bismarck High School. That final stretch followed years of romanticizing a life outside of North Dakota and a series of half-baked plans to travel the world soon after hanging up my graduation cap and gown. College, I thought, would cramp my style.
Riding on a bus one day, heading from a journalism conference, I opened up to my newspaper adviser Ms. McKenzie — or “Mac” as we called her — about my post-high school plans. She listened to my ideas, and instead of criticizing their impracticality, she subtlety highlighted the benefits of an undergraduate degree. I applied to a few schools after that.
So now, on a path to a Master’s degree and satisfied with a reporting career, I can’t thank Mac enough for her guidance. And I think, in the end, even 2011 Jessica Lee would agree — we made it out of ND!
— Jessica Lee, Traffic Lab reporter
A new view of history
When I was a junior at the University of Texas in Austin, I had this “really mean” teacher for honors history. She scolded us if we hadn’t done the reading or didn’t know actual dates, she graded super hard, and gave me one of my only near-failing grades. She even looked at me with contempt and disbelief when I told her I was behind because I had a rare blood disorder, which — OK — was a lie. She knew it was a lie, she called me out on it, and she put me on an extremely short leash. Because I knew I couldn’t BS her (and I didn’t want to actually fail), I got cracking and worked as hard — maybe harder — than I had in any other class. And you know what? By the end of it all, my eyes were opened. History was not some dead thing that happened on these stupid old dates. It was about people, what they did, why and how their frailties, strengths and decisions shaped their world — just the way our strengths and weaknesses will shape tomorrow.
— Christine Clarridge, reporter
Understanding journalism better from an academic
I covered the Oklahoma City bombing recovery efforts. After that, plus some brutal years in Tacoma covering the crack wars, I was burnt out on journalism and needed something really different. So I went to Columbia University in New York City to get my master’s in American studies. A Nativist movement was growing at the time (1996) that pushed English as the only proper language for use in the U.S. I decided to focus my thesis on that and started taking courses in American English. That’s when I met David Yerkes in the English department. He’d supervised several master’s theses of journalists who’d gone back to school like me, and I asked him to be my adviser. During one painful rewrite of my thesis, he told me the problem was journalism — that as a journalist I trained to go wide (no such thing as an in-depth story without lots of sources!) but not very narrow and deep, the way academics do research. Great example: He’s an expert on … drumroll … the lowly, misunderstood hyphen. I eventually took his word after a lot of arguing and analyzed 100 years worth of census data on one simple question asked of Americans every 10 years: What language do you speak at home? Loads of data, right? But very, very narrowly contained.
His message stayed with me, long after I returned to journalism and felt the frustration academics feel toward my profession. And it stayed with me when I got my Ph.D. years later in, of all things, journalism.
— Doreen Marchionni, deputy metro editor
Learning how to find the best stories
When I was halfway through college at Arizona State University, I changed my major to journalism. I had no experience in the field, but was young and arrogant and thought I was capable of anything. Kelly Carr was the teacher for my intro course, Reporting 301. She spoke of journalism with fire and passion, but in an approachable way. I always think of her when my ears prick up at an overheard conversation. She taught us that once you become a journalist, you can never go into a coffee shop the same way again, because you’re constantly mining the people and the community board for story ideas. She taught me how to find the types of stories I have built my career on.
— Bettina Hansen, photojournalist
The most practical class I ever took
In college, my roommate convinced me to register for Buddhist Psychology. I really didn’t want to spend my tuition dollars on a religion class, but it fit into my overloaded schedule, and I only needed one more 300-level course to fulfill my psych minor. “And you get to nap,” my roommate told me. “There’s a 10-minute meditation before every lecture.” I was sold: it seemed like an easy A.
Well, I didn’t end up napping, since Professor Grabowecky instructed us to keep our eyes open and unfocused as we meditated. I rolled my eyes at a lot of the assignments, including an hourlong walking meditation through the science building — a task that turned out to be incredibly difficult. I figured I’d earn my credit and be done with meditation forever (outside of savasana).
At some point, though, I found myself mindfully washing the dishes, mindfully folding my laundry and mindfully peeling my clementine oranges. Meditation made *sense.* It wasn’t just spiritual fluff; it was real psychology. Going into the quarter, Professor Grabowecky knew she was dealing with a lecture hall full of skeptics, and she firmly yet furtively guided us to an understanding of the science behind it all.
Today, I will admit that I don’t take time out of my day to meditate. But I am able to mindfully peel oranges, assemble flat-pack furniture, meet demanding deadlines and even read trolling comments on my stories without losing my mind — Buddhist Psychology is the most practical class I have ever taken, topping sewing, drivers’ ed and probably even Reporting & Writing 201. So thanks, Professor!
— Corinne Chin, video editor