Wednesday, May 22, 2013

In Praise of Good Teachers

I went to a lot of different schools when I was growing up. Thanks to my dad's job, we moved about every two years. So I had a lot of teachers. Some were terrible, some were forgettable, but some, just a few, I'm sure made more of an impact on me than I did on them, because they were the ones that believed that these weird little sparks of creativity inside me were valuable. So here are some of the best teachers I ever had:

Mr Krebbs: Grade Six, Walkervale Primary School. 

Mr Krebbs is the first teacher I remember absolutely worshipping. And why? Only for the most shallow of reasons. Because we had to write poems one day. Not even real poems. We got a worksheet with a list of first lines written on them, and we had to write a second line. And yes, even after a gazillion years, I remember mine.

The first line was: The little boy had a cut on his arm. 
And my line was: But the band-aid worked like a charm. 

I read it out when it was my turn, and Mr Krebbs didn't say anything. For a second I sat there and panicked that it was terrible, then Mr Krebbs grinned at me. "That's a gem! An absolute gem!" 

God, I loved that man. 

Mrs Raymond: Grade Eight, Goondiwindi State High School. 

"You'll have books published one day," she told me. 

And I kind of want to send her one to prove her right, but then I wonder how old she is now and whether or not she has a weak heart. 

Mrs O'Sullivan: Grade Ten, Goondiwindi State High School. 

Okay, by this stage I knew I was good at English. And, okay, I was stuck in the second-worst ranking high school in the entire state. (My cousin Tony had the privilege of going to the worst-ranking school at the time. We're a classy family.) It was the sort of school where you were expected to either drop out and become pregnant to a footballer, or the other way around, or concentrate your studies on sheep. No, I'm not kidding. My sister actually took Agriculture for a while. I didn't. I'm quite proud to say I have still never stuck my arm up a cow. Although I have helped stitch one up after a caesarian -- but that was on my terms, dammit. 

Anyway, Goondiwindi SHS. Now, back when I was at school, state schools weren't allowed to "stream" classes, meaning that they couldn't lump all the smart kids together in one class and all the dumb kids in another class. So when a sneaky English teacher wanted to actually teach the kids there was more to life than sheep dips, she took a selection of the smart kids and put them in her English class, and rounded out the numbers with footy players. 

I was not in that class. 

Taking my BFF Kate with me for moral support, I went to the teachers' office at lunch time. "Um, excuse me, Mrs O'Sullivan. I'm Jen Burke, and I'd really like to be in your English class." 

"Oh," the most intimidating teacher in school said, looking down at her piles of paperwork. "I don't know what happened there. You're at the top of my list." 


Mr. R: Grade Eleven, Townsville State High School. 

No, he didn't have a cool name like "Mr R". In fact, I can't remember his name, except it started with an R*. Which is terrible, because he was a great teacher. He loved Shakespeare, and poetry, and theatre. He taught a combination of Year 11 and Year 12 English in a school where English wasn't the first language for a good proportion of the class, and yet he still took the time to listen to one whiny student who didn't want to do the set novel for assessment because it was boring. (In my defence, it really was boring.)

"Well, what are you reading at the moment?" he asked me. 
"A Clockwork Orange," I said. 
"Okay," said Mr R, without even blinking, "I'll set your assignment on that." 

And let me tell you, as someone whose sister is an English teacher, I realise now how much extra work that must have been for him. Not only to set my assignment, but to deal with all the associated crap from the board when it comes to standardised marking across different tests. 

Mr Baguley: Grade Ten, Goondiwindi State High School. 

I'll bet you guys are surprised to see a maths teacher made my list, right? Me too. I hated Advanced Maths. I hated it so bad that I failed it in Year Nine, failed it in the first semester of Year Ten, panicked, and my mum forced me to go to tutoring on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons with Mr Baguley. And let's think for a moment here about the sort of teachers who give up their free time to help unwilling kids like I was pass their classes. 

But something weird happened in those few months of tutoring. What started off as a small group of maths-challenged failures like myself (and my BFF Kate who, despite being some sort of maths savant, was there, again, for moral support) dropped away sharply as interest waned, and pretty soon it was just me. And Kate, who I cannot stress enough did not have to be there. And then something even weirder happened: I found myself trying very, very hard to wrap my head around something I didn't understand. I wanted to pass. And this never happened to me in English. Hell, I could do English in my sleep. But Mr Baguley promised me that if I worked hard, I would pass his maths class. And, holy crap, I did. I have never been more proud of a pass before in my life. I'd also never worked harder just to scrape by. 

"Is it just maths you have problems with?" Mr Baguley asked me one day. "How do you go in your other subjects?" 
"I dunno, sir," I mumbled. "Okay, I guess." 
I can still remember the look on his face on Speech Night when he saw me sitting at the end of a row. 
"Jennifer, what are you doing here?" 
"I got the book prize for English," I said. 
He stared at me in jaw-dropping surprise for a long moment, and then laughed, which I like to think was due to his his overwhelming relief that I wasn't a total academic write-off. 

And, you know, I still sometimes think of him when I ponder two trains that leave the station at the same time, one heading west and the other heading east, and know that the westbound train travels 18 kilometres per hour slower than the eastbound train. If the two trains are 570 kilometres apart after 3 hours, what is the rate of the westbound train?

Which teachers would you go back and thank? 

* Mr Rowntree! I phoned my Mum to ask. Apparently she has a better memory of my many teachers than I do. Must be all those awkward Parent-Teacher interviews she had to sit through. 


  1. Wow. It was great to see the early writer finding her way, and to get so much support like that is amazing.

    I think Mr. Baguley laughed 'cause he realized you were a writer. That he'd simply found you stumbling through his field with ice skates on. :-)

    I'd thank Ms. Dresser, who had a 7th grade creative writing class. Not only was it fun, but when she read one of my papers to the class, she knew me well enough not to tell anyone who wrote it.

    And you know, I was at the top of my class in math, and yet with that train problem, I've forgotten so much that I'd have to try numbers at random until one fit. Good books, though, and good teachers - those stay with you.

    1. That is a great description: "stumbling through his field with ice skates on". :)

      Ms. Dresser sounds very cool. I was a vain little egotist in Grade Seven. I would have stood up and read my writing to the world. Hmmm...where did all that confidence go, I wonder?

  2. Sometimes I forget that I had some really good teachers when I was in school. I remember Mr. Lenz, who said I was funny, and Mrs. Siravo, who was understanding and easy to talk to. The first really good teacher I had was probably not until eighth grade, when I had Mrs. Iacabucci for English. A year later, when I ran into her, she not only remembered my name, she stopped to talk.

    This post really made me smile. It's so great to think of the ones who really made a positive impact.

    1. It's amazing how a world of praise from a teacher can make you feel so good. I think it's because, unlike parents, they're not under any obligation to tell you how talented you are!

      And positive teachers are just so wonderful!

  3. So Kate (my maths genius BFF from high school) tried to leave a comment, but Blogger ate it. Here is what she sent me:

    I actually had lots of fabulous teachers, despite Goondiwindi High's dismal ranking! Mrs Lennon for English - I loved the way she loved the books and plays she was teaching. Mr Sharp for History - he taught me how to think. Mr Fitzgerald for Agriculture! What he taught us about protectionism was the only reason I passed my economics unit at uni. And Mr Baguley makes my list too because arguing with him was the first hint that I would end up an advocate.

    And last, but not least, each of our sisters. Rach for teaching me about urban living and Kath for teaching us not to put make-up on with a trowel.

    1. And now I feel bad for not mentioning Mrs Lennon for English as well! And yes, your arguments with Mr Baguley were epic, and probably the highlight of his day as well. I didn't argue with Mr Baguley much at all. I think I was too scared of him.

      And yes, for older sisters! Probably the greatest teachers of all. :)



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