In fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. K. She was a no-nonsense kind of lady, but like any master teacher, she was able to maintain a perfect equilibrium of toughness and tenderness. She demanded excellence, but she also knew when it was time to pull back and nurture. That’s a rare and special talent.
Two decades later, I can still remember things Mrs. K said, or the way that she could effortlessly transition between teaching long division and improvising songs on the piano—songs, I might add, that included the vocabulary and spelling words we were studying.
I wager that most of us have warm feelings about at least one teacher. We may not have seen this teacher in decades, but the impression made by him or her never quite leaves us. Excellent teachers come in all forms, but I’d like to share five things about my teacher that not only inspired me as a student, but turned me into an aspiring educator.
5 Lessons I Learned From a Master Teacher
She demanded excellence
Mrs. K knew how to have fun, but that never stood in the way of her demand for excellence in both our conduct and work. Anything less than the best and most urbane was not tolerated. We learned this quickly and rose to the occasion—and she did too.
She knew that there was a time for play
The first time Mrs. K joined our recess kickball game—ankle-length dress and all—surprised all of us. At our school, the teachers rotated recess duty: two would supervise while the others ate lunch in the cafeteria or prepped for the rest of their classes. On several occasions, Mrs. K gave up her prep time so that she could join in on whatever game her students were playing. When this happened, large groups of students would migrate to the baseball field to watch. Like us, they were impressed by this playful side of Mrs. K. I’m sure they also found it odd that the same woman who scolded them for dawdling, or marched them to the gym with the precision of an army sergeant, actually owned tennis shoes and knew how to thrown down on the kick ball court.
Joining in on our games showed us that our teacher could cut loose, laugh at herself, and that she genuinely liked spending time with us.
She found a way to incorporate her talents into the curriculum
Mrs. K wasn’t a virtuoso on the piano, but that never stopped her from playing “Happy Birthday” or banging out an improvised song that included creative ways to spell vocabulary words. Not only were these sing-alongs fun, they taught us something.
The lesson I took from this: Use your talents creatively, share them with students, and find a way to bring them into the classroom. This will keep things engaging for both you and the students.
She was forgiving
I’ve never given them a lie detector test, but I know a couple teachers who claim they never cheated in school. I happen to be one that did and, as you might have guessed, Mrs. K was the teacher who caught me. The details of the incident probably aren’t that important, but Mrs. K was no pushover; she knew there was no way I could have calculated the math problems she assigned our group in my head.
Once the rest of the class left for recess, Mrs. K called me up to her desk, handed me my paper and said, “You have the right answers, but I don’t see any work. Where is it?” Before I could answer, she added, “I just want you to be honest with me about this assignment.” I fessed up and to my surprise, she smiled, held out her hand, shook mine and said, “I admire your honesty.”
I didn’t receive a detention and I didn’t fail the assignment. Instead, she allowed me to redo the assignment for homework.
What did I learn from this? When I eventually had my own students, my classroom was not exempt from cheating. After weeks of going over plagiarism and proper citation, I would always find that two or three students had copied large sections of articles they found on Google and pasted them into their own papers. I felt betrayed, insulted and frustrated with these students. I may not have always handled these situations as gracefully as Mrs. K did—but I always strove to.
She made a big deal out of greeting us
What I always appreciated about Mrs. K was the way she greeted us every morning. As we would come into the class, she would stand outside the door, smile and greet us by name. This showed the class not only that she was pleased to see us, but that she was ready and eager to explore a day of learning with us. It was a simple, but important gesture that still sticks with me.