Feeling a Teacher's Influence after 70 Years

In 1980, I interviewed Bryan "Skipper" Hall, a man who had spent fifty years as a Methodist minister in New Mexico. He was eighty-three years old and willing to talk openly and honestly about his life and religious philosophy. Like almost anyone his age, he had endured tragedies throughout his life. Even so, he radiated an infectious optimism that I found inspiring. To this day, he is one of the most thoughtful and philosophically mature people I have met.

At the time of the interview I was a young man facing many crossroads. I was struggling through my first year of teaching high school and beginning work on a graduate degree. I was also two months away from getting married to Skipper's granddaughter. I went into the interview with Skipper figuring it would make a good oral history project for my masters in history. I left having learned invaluable lessons about how to live a good life, lessons that have remained with me to this day. I also learned an unforgettable lesson about the importance of teaching that has carried me through an almost forty-year career in education.

In 1974, Skipper's home, one that he and his family had built with their own hands, was destroyed in a forest fire. Skipper and his wife lost virtually everything they owned. When Skipper talked to me about the tragedy he expressed little sentimentality and kept his emotions about the awful loss under control. Life goes on, I suppose.

Five years after the fire, one year before my interview with Skipper, his wife passed away, ending a long struggle with ill health and suffering. Only two months later his son was tragically killed in an automobile accident — a horrific event for Skipper. During the interview he spoke to me about the recent loss of his wife and son in a matter-of-fact way, keeping his emotions in check. I never sensed he was apathetic or unfeeling. On the contrary, I sensed deep emotional pain tempered by a rational understanding of how the universe works. Again, life goes on.

During the ten hours I spent interviewing Skipper, he provided only one moment of uncontrollable emotion. He wept openly when talking about a teacher he had not seen for seventy years, a teacher who had tried to keep him from dropping out of school. While talking about the teacher his voice broke, and he could not continue speaking.

"I had a teacher named Morton and she was one of the best teachers I ever had. She was the only one I remember by name. She begged me not to leave school; in fact, she cried about it. Later in life I tried to find her, I wrote back to San Angelo but they couldn’t locate her.… I tried to find her to tell her I went back to school, but I couldn’t find her."

His memory got the better of him when he told me the story. He lost his composure and motioned for me to turn off the tape recorder. He needed a moment to wipe his tears and get control of himself.

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Bryan "Skipper" Hall
SMU Student Body President, 1925-1926

Teachers might be well served knowing that story. They should know that in the midst of all their hard work and frustration — during the dark days when they doubt whether they can even remain in the classroom — they can think about Skipper Hall and the teacher who touched him so deeply. Skipper's story should give teachers a broader sense of the importance of their work and the tremendous influence they can have on students.

If you are a teacher, just think how seventy years from now — in the year 2088 — some elderly person who has already lived a productive and inspiring life might be thinking fondly of you and how you affected them. It's a humbling (and sometimes terrifying) thought.

Skipper Hall taught me that the power of teaching works in mysterious ways, reaching across generations with wisdom, hope, and inspiration.Teaching is, indeed, a noble profession.

Click here to learn more about Skipper Hall's fascinating life and inspiring philosophy.


The Elements of Teaching

I have seen few better descriptions of what it takes to succeed in the classroom than what I first read almost twenty years ago in The Elements of Teaching by James M. Banner and Harold C. Cannon.

According to Banner and Cannon, good teaching contains eight essential elements.

1. Learning: A good teacher loves learning. They have mastered the subject, and their love of learning for the sake of learning is infectious.

2. Authority: A good teacher has authority in the classroom, an authority that comes from the knowledge and character of the teacher. If the teacher is not respected, the teacher’s desire to help students learn is pointless.

3. Order: A good teacher has effective classroom management skills. Good classroom management takes many forms: routine procedures, high expectations, reasonable rules of conduct, realistic expectations, equitable rewards and penalties. An orderly classroom is the place where good teaching begins.

4. Ethics: A good teacher is an ethical person who understands the responsibilities of the profession. An ethical teacher is one who puts the needs of the students before anything else. An ethical teacher is one who is sensitive to the beliefs and culture of every student.

5. Imagination: Good teachers are imaginative. They possess the ability to approach their subject in a way that captures the attention of their students and enhances learning. Good teachers find a way to engage students.

6. Compassion: Good teachers care about their students. They care about making the world better.

7. Character: Good teachers are good people. Good teaching stems from the character and personality of the teacher.
  • Good teachers are authentic human beings. They are the author of their own words.
  • Good teachers are consistent.
  • Good teachers are emotionally stable. Students allow little tolerance for moodiness or emotional outbursts from their teacher.
  • Good teachers are willing and able to acknowledge mistakes.
  • Good teachers are able to strike a balance between being a student’s friend and maintaining an icy detachment from students.
8. Pleasure: Good teachers make learning enjoyable. They find joy in being with students and helping students learn. Good teachers bring a sense of playfulness and fun into the classroom.

Teaching is not an easy job to conquer, and I applaud the teachers who go to work every day doing their best to create a better future for our children and our nation.


The Art of Teaching

A decision to teach grows out of a desire to make a difference.

When I went to college I had to choose a major. I juggled several options — music, law, astronomy, anthropology, communications.

I chose to teach.

Like a physician motivated by an overwhelming desire cure disease, I chose a profession with a higher purpose. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to serve the needs of children. I wanted to serve the needs of my community.

I left college believing that teaching was a noble profession. Forty-one years later I have not changed my mind. In fact, I believe it now more than ever.

The nobility in teaching comes from the faith that teachers have in youth. Faith in youth translates into a faith in the future, and faith in the future translates into a faith in humanity. Teachers who don't possess that faith won’t survive long in the classroom.

And nobody ever said that teaching would be easy. It hasn’t been.

I have seen experienced teachers — those who thought they had seen everything — walk into classrooms only to find that students had found new ways to challenge them, new ways to make them feel like rank amateurs.

Teaching is much more difficult than people outside the profession can ever understand.

And no teacher gets it right every day because teaching is not a science. Teaching is an art form. Good teachers are like good artists.
(1)
  • They bring their own personality and their own spirit into their work.
  • They help people learn what it means to be human.
  • They inspire people to appreciate the best that human beings can achieve.
  • They change people’s lives.
  • They know the success of their work is judged by an abstract standard. Just as you know good art when you see it, you know good teaching when you see it.
Good art and good teaching are essential to making our world better. Both have the ability to make a difference in people's lives. Both are vital to the health of the communities in which we live.

"I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit." – John Steinbeck

Over the years I have learned that mastering the art of teaching required me to address four essential questions.
(2)
  1. What do I teach?
  2. How do I teach?
  3. Why do I teach?
  4. Who am I as as a teacher?
The first question was usually answered for me. In most cases, when I taught a new course I was handed a curriculum guide or textbook that provided me with the content of the course I was teaching. For most subjects, a consensus about content was decided long before I taught the course.

The second question took time for me to find an adequate answer. For several years I spent time experimenting, finding my way, attending workshops, talking with other teachers. I eventually discovered the teaching strategies that worked best for me. It took time for me to learn what worked with the students shaped by the community in which I lived.

My answer to the third question has evolved over time. I have spent my career in teaching as someone who also spent a lot of time reading and learning, looking for a higher purpose to what I do in the classroom. I have also learned how necessary it is to find an answer to this question. Surviving in the profession requires a periodic reminder of the reasons I became a teacher in the first place. If I want to motivate students, I must also keep myself motivated.

"To learn and never be filled is wisdom; to teach and never be weary is love." – Arab Proverb

The fourth question — who am I as a teacher? — penetrates right to the heart of what it takes to succeed in the classroom. Students work hard for teachers they respect. To be a good teacher I therefore need also to be a good person. I need to be the type of person who motivates students and makes them want to do their best.

Putting all this together — answering these four questions — has led me to a better understanding of what it takes to master the art of teaching. To be a good teacher I need to know my subject, as well as the teaching strategies that work best for me and the type of students I teach. I need to clarify the reasons that teaching history is a worthwhile endeavor. I need to be a missionary for my subject and grow as a person so that I am the right person to teach that subject.

(1) Banner, James M., Jr. and Harold C. Cannon,
The Elements of Teaching, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977) pp. 1-6.
(2) Palmer, Parker J.,
The Courage to Teach, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998) p. 4.