22 October 2015

Tribute to a Favorite Teacher

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to seek out an old teacher of mine, Mrs. Roberts.

Mrs. Roberts was one of my teachers during the 4th, 5th, and 6th grade. At that time in my elementary school, we had a pull-out program for accelerated learning. The full-time teacher would recommend a few students from her class and a couple of times a week, Mrs. Roberts would come collect those students and we would attend a class together with her.

This class was the highlight of my week. For better or worse, school always came easily for me--the first time I hit a real challenge was when I jumped from a Geometry in 1994-95 to Calculus in 1995-96 when I was 14. In this class, though, Mrs. Roberts had a way of getting me to think bigger about learning, education, and achievement.

I remember most of the class being about experiments. One time, she gave us each a washer on a string. She had us hold the string at the loose end between our thumb and pointer finger high enough in the air that the washer wouldn't touch the desk. Mrs. Robert's slid a sheet of paper with black crosshairs on it onto the desk, underneath the hanging washer.

Then, she asked us to think about the washer moving along one of the crosshairs without moving our fingers. To our astonishment, the washer started to move up and down along the vertical line!

She asked us how we could explain it. She asked whether we we're really performing telekenesis or if something else was happening.

On another day she had us look at figure and shadow pictures where the main picture is white, but there is also a picture in the black relief; the wine glass and faces illusion, for example, as well as several others. She asked us which picture--the black or the white--seemed to have a stronger pull on our minds, and what we thought that might mean.

On another day she introduced to us the idea of word play. She asked us how many ways we could think of to use the word "ring" in a sentence. The first ideas were out of our mouths in a flash: "ring the doorbell!", "the telephone ringing!", "a ring on your finger!". She could see that we were having a hard time "thinking out of the box", so she suggested "what about 'ring around the tub'?" She always had a way of getting us to see the world in a different way than it initially appeared.

Anyway, I remember one day when it was just Mrs. Roberts and I talking about a research project that she wanted me to do. She asked me what I thought would be a fun topic. Instantly, I knew my role, I was good at it: Figure out what the teacher wants to hear and say it. So, I said "something about math". I can still here the ever so slight hesitation in her voice when she said "okay, math." She wrote it down and then asked for more ideas.

I listed off a couple more school subjects, and, while I don't remember what she said, I was starting to get the idea that this wasn't what Mrs. Roberts was looking for. So I went another route with some different topics.

After about the 6th topic, I was pretty sure that I didn't get what Mrs. Roberts was trying to get me to say.

And then I remember this spark hit me like a bolt of lightning:

Wait a second! You're telling me that I can learn about whatever I choose?

The thought had honestly never really occurred to me. To that point, I figured that education was sort of this experience where teachers told you what to do and you did those things. I liked my view of education because I was good at it.

The idea that I should really, really, really pick for myself was exciting. And so I told her. "The Mind," I said. "I want to learn how brains work, how memory works."

She smiled. I raced to the library and found a few books. I remember reading two of them from cover to cover and loving every minute of it. I wrote a report, and I still remember several things that I learned from that experience.

In that moment, Mrs. Roberts helped me realize what education is about. It's not about jumping through hoops and learning cool academic tricks. It's not about sheets of paper and stamps of quality assurance as you exit the Education Factory. Its about finding your passion and diving into it, treating it like a painter treats his canvas or a musician treats his instrument, finding those who love it equally and building or discovering something new that no one else had or knew before. And, doing it because it's fun.

Mrs. Roberts taught me to love learning, and I thank her for that.

So, anyway, I called the school district she worked at and gave them my phone number. Today, Mrs. Roberts called me, and it was so much fun to reflect on those classes so many years ago. I told her what I told you and thanked her. Maybe you could do the same for a teacher who inspired you.