Did you have a teacher who changed your life?
May 16, 2021 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in hearing stories about amazing teachers. Ideally grade school or middle school. It could either be their overall memorable teaching style, or some way that they specifically encouraged you. Just looking for inspiring stories.
posted by swheatie to Education (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Hi! from 4th grade to 8th grade, I had the same Drama teacher in a magnet arts program. She cared so much about who we were as individuals and emphasized paying attention to our tastes, preferences etc because they were all valid. She had us doing morning pages, even. This was such counterprogramming to all of the other teachers (and adult figures in general) in my life who emphasized behaving well, being a good kid, not causing any trouble. My Drama teacher showed that she knew that being a kid was tough and being a person is tough! Any amount of boldness/self-assuredness I have now is in large part because of her nurturing and insistence. It's hard to imagine who I would be without her.
posted by estlin at 3:12 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]

At the time, I didn't think she was so amazing, but looking back...

I was kind of a smartass in high school. In a math class close to the end of my senior year, we were studying imaginary numbers. I was so DONE with school at that point, that I could not care any less. I made my feelings known by asking her "If these numbers are imaginary, WHY ARE WE STUDYING THEM??".

She paused for a minute, and rather than arguing with me, or giving me some kind of "you'll need to know this in college" non-answer or even giving me a detention for my smartassholery, she said "Isn't it fun to know things?"

And looking back, 40 years on, I say to that teacher: Yes. Yes, it IS fun to know things.

I do not remember a thing about imaginary numbers; however, I know I am smarter for having learned about them at one point.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:38 PM on May 16 [11 favorites]

Yes. My middle school gym teacher. He was a veteran of the Korean War. I think he was at the Chosin Reservoir. He was a tough love kind of guy. You knew he cared about you when he was yelling at you or rather encouraging you to do your best. He did not care if you won or lost, only that you tried your hardest and gave it all you had. In fact, his favorite students were the non athletes that tried real hard.

I learned a lot about life from him. I learned that if I was going to play, whether that was on the field or in business or in anything that required effort, to give it my best and not worry about outcomes. Worry about the process and the effort.

I learned to take practice seriously. You play how you practice. I learned to help teammates. Life is a team sport. I learned about toughness, mental and physical. As my x-country coach in HS he taught me to overcome the pain and run. He also treated us all as individuals. He knew when to pat you on the back and when to kick you in the ass.

I loved the bus rides to x-country meets when I could just sit and talk to him. He told great stories and all had a point.

He was the classic gruff exterior guy with a heart of gold. I am so glad that after I graduated from college and had started to make my way in the world, I decided to contact him and thank him. I was a wise ass in my youth and he saw the good in me and encouraged me.

He died unexpectedly about a year after I thanked him. I was talking to a colleague of his at a memorial service and the colleague told me that he had mentioned my thank you conversation and said that that was why he got into teaching, to see us grow up into productive young men and women.

Even after he died he taught me how important it is to thank people who have helped you or who support you. I am one of those rare people that will call the help desk and thank them because everything worked that day. It does not cost anything to recognize people for their efforts.

Bless you Mr. L. Thank you Mr. L.
posted by AugustWest at 4:12 PM on May 16 [11 favorites]

My middle school music/drama teacher was amazing. I did go to a private school that had a big emphasis on the arts, so I was super lucky. I had a really rough time socially, but I had a good voice and I loved to sing. I think Steve could see that, and he gave me a lot of opportunities to shine. Including letting me writing my own solo for the 8th grade play, which was incredible.
posted by radioamy at 4:16 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]

I had an encounter with a teacher that changed my life, but looking back it was a really strange experience which could never happen nowadays.

It was an all boys school: our class teacher was female, and she ran an "adventure club" that was in theory open to anyone in the school to join, but in practice, only students in her class joined: because everyone else in the school was terrified of her, and she terrified the students in her class into joining it.

We did so many things that pushed me way out of my comfort zone. Camping on a remote island with no outside communication for 5 days, you only ate what you brought with you, but on the last day she bought a few live chickens from a nearby village on another island and released them and you had to hunt them down yourself, decapitate and defeather and cook them over a wood fire. We climbed a 13,500 foot mountain with little more than our canvas school shoes and regular clothes, which was basically 36 hours of continuous climbing on the way up and then down broken up by a 2 hour dinner break and 3 hour nap in the middle. The other half of the time was spent coming up with wacky fundraising ideas to pay for these trips - our school population included quite a lot of poor students who would basically work every day after school to help their parents pay their bills. All this at age 14 or 15!

She didn't speak very much but imparted the idea that difficult things are rewarding, and also make the next thing you encounter seem less difficult, and it's given me a kind of confidence as I went through the rest of my life after that.
posted by xdvesper at 4:54 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]

I had an English teacher in 7th and 8th grade that helped me a good deal. Mrs. W I think but cannot remember. In high school I got into model UN and the teachers who ran that were mentors and tormentors. Much later I took a Shakespeare course at BMCC and had a great instructor who gave me a book about Macbeth that I treasure.
posted by vrakatar at 4:57 PM on May 16

Changed your life is a bit of a hard stretch. Maybe just the teachers in this small one middle/high school town who weren't flummoxed by my eccentric genius. Big fish, little pond, etc. I was some sort of 70-80's undiagnosed neuroatypical.

My 6th grade math teacher talked to her 7th grade counterpart and I had a folder in a filing cabinet and ignored the class instructions to walk up and put my homework in the folder and get my lesson for the next day. I got to skip 7th grade math from that and got to take home-ec and woodshop when I went off to middle school. That's about the limit of what's available in that small town. You lucky big city folks.

After I did the first year of drafting (mechanical drawing), the next year that teacher came out of the vocational wing and tracked me down asking why I wasn't taking drafting II. I didn't have the free slots in my schedule. He offered to let me take it any period of the day, even lunch or his free period or other classes.

My AP US History teacher was a piece of work. You go into class and begin furiously copying down the outline on the blackboards surrounding the room because when the bell rings he's just going to stand up and start talking. When the bell rings again he erases what you covered and starts writing out the continuation of the outline. A bunch of us the next year would take his freshman/sophmore GE world history class as an easy but useful grade. He was pretty good. Sadly he was also a sunday school teacher and made a point of telling you who was going to hell for reasons.

My senior calculus teacher was also my homeroom teacher (that is the first class of the morning where there's roll-call and other administrative things). She had this habit of assigning homework and then the next day just asking for 2 or 3 questions to copy and turn in, giving us time to check our work and her time to do the homeroom things. She knew I didn't ever do the homework until she asked for it. Then she sent me to turn in the paperwork, I'd stop by other teachers and take their stuff to the office, wander back in ten minutes later, sit in the back and sleep or read a book. She only really called on me a few times when she wanted me to try to explain something again in a different way. She's the one that set me up with the tutoring gig.

There are others, basically most, but just things here or there. Biology teacher let me keep my cat disection brain in a jar. I would hang out with teachers after school just waiting for sports practice to start (a good hour or so). Probably all of them did something here or there.

So yeah, the teacher that while it was possible let me skip a class, the teacher who tracked me down to take the second class, the teacher who could just start spewing for 45 minutes (heh), and the teacher who just put me to work and then to paying work. I'll take it.
posted by zengargoyle at 5:06 PM on May 16

My family moved when I was seven, and almost immediately thereafter my parents divorced. My mom had been a stay-at-home mom to that point, so I started second grade at a new school and with nobody at home. I was lucky to have the teacher I did, Mrs. Tate, but she didn’t become life-changing until the following year. I had always been a good student, straight As to that point, and I tried even harder in second grade because I liked Mrs. Tate so much. But in third grade, I started to struggle. Today, I’d probably be diagnosed with ADHD, but my problem was that school had gotten too easy. A lot of the stuff we were doing in third grade was stuff I’d already done in second grade. I got bored and acted out. My parents had meetings with the principal.

At that time, my school’s gifted program started in fourth grade, and it was a two-year program with the same teacher. After maybe a month, maybe two (before I started wearing a coat, at least), the school announced a change to the gifted program. They’d now start in second grade, with two two-year programs: a new one for second and third graders, and the same one for fourth and fifth graders. The teacher for the second and third grade program would be... Mrs. Tate! I was immediately transferred back to her, where I resumed my “normal” academic career that would culminate in Dean’s List in college and a year of law school.

As a kid, I always had this feeling that Mrs. Tate had affected the change for my benefit. My mom and I had both stayed close with her, and I know she was dismayed to see that I was struggling. As an adult, I know that it was probably coincidental, that the change was probably going to happen regardless of my third grade performance, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It felt like God himself had sent me an omen, that I needed to focus on school and that Mrs. Tate was the guardian angel He appointed to help me. So I did. She wouldn’t let me not.

I should note the consequences of not heeding that omen. I grew up in a pretty bad town. Rust Belt, drugs, teen pregnancy, and whatnot. I’ve mentioned several times that it was a regular occurrence to have the school locked down and searched for weapons in the aftermath of gang violence. I have multiple classmates on Death Row. I came from a little more privilege than most of the people I went to school with, especially elementary school, so maybe I wouldn’t have gotten involved in any of that anyway. But I’m awfully glad Mrs. Tate never let me find out.

Side note, from the “one of those things that you did as a child so you just assumed everyone else did, too” department: Mrs. Tate was black, and she subscribed to Jet and Ebony magazines, which she’d bring to school for us to read. I didn’t realize until much later that this wasn’t something most white kids did. There’s a line in an early Jay-Z song about having more black chicks between his sheets than Essence. I was listening to it with my fraternity brothers in college once and they were all confused by that line, so I gave this big explanation of black lifestyle magazines and they were all like “wut?”
posted by kevinbelt at 5:15 PM on May 16 [7 favorites]

It was middle school history teacher who gave us potboiler mid-century historical fiction about the Renaissance to read, and geeked out verbally over the Roman Mithra cults. The fiction was entertaining trash, but I felt in my bones that true stories were more fascinating, weird and sexy than fiction could ever be, and that has shaped my life.
posted by Scram at 5:18 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]

A true story which is tangential but important, I feel. I have been an Adjunct college professor for 15+ Years. As an adjunct, you often don’t do all of the academic meetings, awards, regalia, etc. You miss a lot.

About ten years into my “tenure,” I went to the academic awards celebration. At this ceremony, students are given honor, high honor, etc awards. Students were also asked to name their most influential teacher, and it was projected onscreen while they received their awards. One of my students had named me.

I never would have known.

The bottom line, feedback in academia is haphazard and often unidirectional, and we should have more of it, especially the positive variety!
posted by soylent00FF00 at 5:22 PM on May 16 [9 favorites]

In fourth grade, we were studying taxonomy (Kingdom, Phylum, etc.). On the day before the test, the teacher asked if anyone felt could go to the board - and write out the classification structure with an example for each. I volunteered and got it right. She said I did not have to take the test the next day because I had already demonstrated mastery of the material, so I got 100%. In all of my future schooling, I tried to focus on mastering the material, rather than studying for the test. (Not always successfully, but that is a different story.) I also discovered that even though I was a fat, awkward kid, I enjoyed talking in front of a group of people and spent more than 25 years in my professional life as a teacher or presenter.
posted by hworth at 5:59 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]

Not quite life changing but an incident that I’ll never forget. In 4th grade, we had a library hour run by the librarian. It was a new concept and they were still working it out. We had to go up to the librarian and request books to read during the hour, all of which were way below my reading level (I was no genius but always was a keen and fast reader). I zipped through the books while getting increasingly bored. The librarian was miffed at how fast I was reading, and yelled at me in front of everyone for “pretending to read.”

My ego bruised, I snitched on her to my teacher who knew me well. She started to accompany me to every subsequent library hour, firmly told the librarian I could read “advanced” books if I wanted, and actually stayed in the library doing her work while keeping an eye out for me. She had absolutely zero obligation to either give up her precious student-free hour, or stand up to her colleague for my sake.
posted by redlines at 7:27 PM on May 16 [6 favorites]

The art teacher at my elementary school noticed I had take a particular interest in projects that other classes were doing, namely, pinhole cameras. During her fre periods she would sometimes come and get me out of class and have me work with the cameras and try to get photos and then work on developing photos. It took forever but I finally got it right. She took a position at the high school in the district and when I went there I took her photography class. I could ask her anything about what we were doing at any time, there were no stupid questions. I’m a graphic artist now, working with photos a lot of the time, and I never would have gotten into this if it hadn’t been for her.
posted by azpenguin at 10:20 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]

The video series on Mr Kanamori stayed with me a long time - Children Full of Life
posted by honey-barbara at 10:59 PM on May 16

This wasn't a teacher, but when I was in elementary school I didn't have any friends and didn't really talk that much. So at recess I wouldn't play with the other kids and I was alone a lot.

There was a playground monitor who would often spend time with me and talk to me and I still remember that even though I don't remember her name or what we talked about.

Also when I was about 17 there was this amazing math teacher who wasn't even my teacher, but I guess somehow he found out that I was good at math and that I wanted to study math at university. So he spent a lot of time working with me 1:1 to show me the kind of math I'd be studying in university -- he gave me interesting homework to try, showed me cool theorems, and I learned so much about what math was and it really helped prepare me for university.
posted by oranger at 7:45 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]

4th grade, my teacher was Dean Beverly. He was awesome. I credit him with making me a reader. He was so engaging and a wonderful teacher. And his classroom was also the best classroom ever, so much stuff to see and interact with, and we had multiple field trips. My favorite thing was that he read out loud to us, in particular, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume. his reading was animated and something we all looked forward to.
posted by poppunkcat at 11:18 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: These are all so wonderful. Thank you!
posted by swheatie at 11:30 AM on May 17 [1 favorite]

One moment that stands out in my mind is during one of those "remember this?" Algebra refresher classes for older students, which happened to be taught by a Grad student named Dave.

We were going over a problem and one of the first students called upon was this woman next to me, and before she said her answer, she talked herself down about how she probably got it wrong because she’s kinda stupid/not very good at math...

Dave politely raised his hand, got everyone's attention, and made an announcement:

(Not verbatim, but it was basically)

"No one in this class is stupid. No one.

I am here to help you guys with math, and every one has their own best way of learning things.

If you are not getting something, it's not that you are in some way messing up—it's that I am not explaining it to you in the way that you can best understand it.

I'm here to do that—it’s my one job—so if you're not perfectly understanding something, let me know and I'll explain it in a better way."

(This was the same year I had a chemistry professor who called the class stupid for asking questions about something we collectively didn't understand—"C'mon! This is baby chemistry!" we were told loudly.
The difference was night and day.)
posted by blueberry at 6:10 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]

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