Lasting impact of great teachers

Sunday September 30, 2012


The recent strike of Chi cago teachers that shut down the gigantic system for too many days was intriguing for several reasons. First of all, Mayor Rahm Emanuel made his tough guy reputation in the United States Congress and as President Barack Obama's chief of staff. His belligerence to one and all netted him the nickname Rahmbo.

Emanuel's goal was to im prove public education in Chi cago by introducing a longer school day and teacher evaluations that were more than cursory. The teachers wanted a 4 percent raise and protection for those laid off when cuts had to be made. What they settled on will last for a year or so, but by next year the teachers' pension fund will start to dry up and you don't need three witches and a boiling cauldron to know what's going to happen when that happen happens.

The problem of teacher evaluations has always fascinated me and caused me to think back on the slew of teachers that had effects on my personal life. A few were exceptionally good, some were exceptionally bad and the rest were sufficient unto the means.


If I had to pick the best ever, I guess it would be one of my teachers at Columbia Univer sity graduate school, Gilbert Highet, from whom I took only one course. He was a professor of Greek and Latin, one of those impeccable English-Scot tish (he had a small burr) scholars who was given a guest professorship at the Columbia graduate school for one year and then stayed on for the rest of his career, eventually becoming a United States citizen.

He was a handsome man who was so British that James Bond would pale in comparison if they ever stood side by side. He was always dressed to the nines and kept a discreetly folded white handkerchief in the right sleeve of his jacket, which he would discreetly slip out from time to time to wipe his un fevered brow. He revered the great literature of our past and regarded libraries as treasure houses.

"These are not books," he would say, "lumps of lifeless paper, but ‘minds' alive on the shelf." You never knew what to expect in one of his classes because he was a great showman as well as a great teacher. In an instant he would vault to the top of his desk to sing a brief ditty or tell a joke or simulate some figure of the past who still figured prominently in our present.

"Hmm," said Homer, "what a delightful aroma, I think I smell a city burning somewhere." And right then and there he would stick in your brain what it took for the Greeks to defeat the Trojans and wipe their city from the face of the earth right down to the salt mixed in the dirt so that nothing could ever grow there again.

"The chief aim of education," he wrote, "is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning." And once he said that if you want to know who is a good teacher, don't bother with his record, just interview the students who studied under him.


How well have they done? As I think back on the teachers in my life, I remember those who gave me a start in one direction or another. There was Dorothy Rhodes whose Latin was re sponsible for my respect of language and desire to probe into the bowels of the words that could be used. And she gave me enough background to pass the graduate degree requirement as did Helene Millet in French. There was also Madeline Pfeif fer whose exactitude made me respect English grammar and usage. There was Frederick (Bar ney) Troy who helped me polish my writing style my freshman year at Mass. State and Fred (Fritz) Ellert, also at Mas sachusetts State College, who gave me an idea of what "Sturm und Drang" was all about.

Teacher evaluation in this country is just getting its sea legs with Chicago trying to get its foot in the door and such cities as Washington, D.C. and New Haven, Conn. nearing a ground floor. The system is so large, however, and so varied, that there will never be an objective base to cover everybody. But something must be done about the know-nothings of the profession who aren't giving the students at least the basics of what they need. Education should not be one of the major things we have to worry about or fight over.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle


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