What Teachers Inspired You?

One of my most memorable teachers was a high school English teacher. Thomas Donovan had been teaching for nearly forty years and was in his sixties when I had him as a 14-year-old student. He was what today we would call “old school.” That is, he was very traditional in the way that he taught.

Our school had only recently admitted girls—for most of his career he had taught only boys. He still referred to students by their last names only, which is uncommon in the United States. He always wore a coat and tie and his shirt was always white, with his initials monogrammed on the pocket:  “T. D.” And that was the nickname the students gave him over his many years of teaching.

T.D. insisted that you come to class on time: no excuses. He would complete the attendance slip for absences at the beginning of class. If you weren’t in your seat, with your homework already on his desk at the time the bell rang, you were absent—not late, absent. And guess what? Students came to class on time, and the class started on time. But he also ended class with such promptness that he would actually break off in the middle of a sentence when the bell rang to signal the end of class. He would say, “The assignment for the next time . . .” and write the assignment on the board. Then class was over. It was a kind of unspoken contract between teacher and student: if you respect the time that I have to teach you and arrive on time, then I’ll respect your time when class is over and won’t keep you late.

T.D. once illustrated the meaning of a part of speech in a way that I’ve never forgotten. He told a student in the class to stand and walked right up to him. “Mead,” he said, addressing the boy by his last name, “what is this?” He pointed to a button on the boy’s sweater. Mead, who thought he might be in some kind of trouble, nervously answered, “It’s a button, sir.” “No, Mead,” he was told, “This is not a button. This is a conjunction. Do you know why it is a conjunction?” Mead didn’t. “It is a conjunction because it connects two things,” said T.D. as he buttoned the sweater. “What is it, Mead?” “A conjunction, sir.”

Well, I can’t say that I modeled my own teaching after T.D. He was a great teacher, but his style was a bit too “old school” for me. But I never forgot his teaching, and especially his vivid illustration of the purpose of a conjunction: to connect two things.

Did you ever have a really inspirational teacher? What do you remember about them? Did they influence the way that you teach?

About Joe McVeigh

Joe McVeigh
Joe McVeigh works independently in the field of English language teaching as a consultant, author, and teacher trainer. For over 25 years he has taught at universities in the United States, including the California Institute of Technology, the University of Southern California, and the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. He has lived and worked in countries including China, India, Chile, the United Kingdom, Hungary, and Saudi Arabia. He has taught students from more than 50 countries. He is co-author with Ann Wintergerst of Tips for Teaching Culture: Practical Approaches to Intercultural Communication (Pearson Longman) and a co-author with Jennifer Bixby of two books in the Q: Skills for Success series (Oxford University Press). In addition to writing and consulting, Joe speaks at conferences and workshops, and maintains a blog and website on issues of interest to teachers of ESL. You can also find him on Twitter: @JoeMcVeigh. Joe is a past chair of TESOL's Intensive English Programs Interest Section and served on the TESOL Board of Directors from 1995-1998. He lives with his wife and son in Middlebury, Vermont, USA.
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4 Responses to What Teachers Inspired You?

  1. Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

    Nancy, I agree about taking a personal interest in students. That seems to come up frequently when people remember special teachers. And it isn’t something that we need training to do, we just need to make a little effort. Thanks for sharing about Mrs. Tatman.

  2. Nancy Hardee says:

    Having moved from school to school a great deal, I had many teachers, some more memorable than others. The one I keep returning to in my mind is Catherine G. Tatman, my first and second grade teacher. Mrs. Tatman taught me in a two room school house in Western Oregon. First, second, and third grades were in one room, and Mr. Tatman taught the mysteries of higher math and U.S. history to the fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in the other room. What I remember most about Mrs. Tatman was not that I learned how to read, play a triangle, or do basic arithmetic (though I learned those and learned them well!) but how she took a personal interest in me. She not only praised my flawless oral reading of “See Dick Run. Run, Dick, run!” but she brought me vitamins when she decided I was too skinny, and she made sure I took them at lunchtime. I felt extremely privileged to stand by her desk each day (the off limits territory) and wait for her to dole out those pills! She spoke to my mother often, and even showed up at our house for supper one evening. She encouraged my curiosity and let me listen in while the third graders had their lessons, and then, at the end of second grade, she promoted me directly into fourth grade. Did she show the same attention to all the children in her three grades? Surely she must have, but what I remember most is that she gave a few extra words and a little extra time to me. I hope, that like Mrs. Tatman, I can make my students feel special, able, and encouraged to excel.

  3. Joe McVeigh Joe McVeigh says:

    Seems like 9th grade English teachers may have a special impact, based on our sample of two! I wonder if we aren’t at a very impressionable age right then—just beginning to develop some higher reasoning and intellectual skills at the same time we are going through all kinds of impressionable brain development. Glad that this brought up happy memories for you. Isn’t it amazing how one can recreate a Saturday morning from many years ago just like it was yesterday?

  4. Judy O'Loughlin says:

    My most memorable teacher was my high school 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Leigh Schuerholz. A soft-spoken teacher with a love of poetry and stories, who inspired everyone to create their own stories and poems. She instilled in me an incredible love of literature and “the word.” My most memorable experience was a Saturday spent in her home in her husband’s art studio, looking at his works, reading, writing, and sharing our stories with other ninth graders. She inspired me in so many ways. I learned to really observe and not just look She inspired me to want to become a teacher and to teach English. My first-born child has “Leigh” as her middle name.

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