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?