Scott: The Old Maid and the Coach
The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that American high schools will graduate over 3 million students this spring. To put that number in perspective, that’s a little more than the population of the state of Kansas. That’s a big passel of young people who will further their education at postsecondary educational institutions or enter the work force. And there are millions more who will view their accomplishment with pride and perhaps some anxiety about how well they have been prepared for the future. For when they step across the stage to receive their diplomas, they also step across the threshold into the adult world.
Parents, relatives, friends and other significant individuals have had great influence over this year’s crop of graduates. But it’s their teachers who will eventually prove to have had the greatest impact on their academic development, work ethic and – in many cases, I dare to suggest – moral character.
Yes, teachers, from grade school through high school are the repositories of a wellspring of knowledge that, effectively transferred to eager learners, gives young people the tools that enable them to build their lives.
Therein lies a tale of two teachers.
When I was in junior high school I had two teachers whose teaching methods were as different as night and day. I couldn’t help but wonder how two people with such disparate pedagogical styles could be teachers in the same school.
My English teacher, Miss Hornbuckle, was a stern, unsmiling termagant who had never been married and had no room in her life for friends. The redoubtable Miss Hornbuckle insisted on a strict adherence to her code of conduct. Students would march into her classroom single file and in utter silence take their seats and fold their hands on their desktops. Then she would glare at us through Coke bottle-bottom eyeglasses as if daring us to breathe or move a muscle. When this ritual was completed and she was satisfied she had our full attention, we would get down to work. To put it bluntly, Miss Hornbuckle would have been perfectly suited for a job as an SS guard in a Nazi concentration camp.
But we all learned, and learned well. Miss Hornbuckle gave us the building blocks of language. She taught us the power of effective written and verbal communication. Under her tutelage we worked to master the ineluctable rules of grammar. And she introduced us to the art of literature in all its manifestations of beauty. Sure, we toiled, sweated and not infrequently felt a twinge of fear. But the gifts she imparted served me well throughout my career and her influence remains with me to this day.
In comparison to Miss Hornbuckle, my math teacher, Mr. Miller (who preferred to be called Coach), was a creampuff. His approach to teaching was to have us work on problems in the textbook the entire period. After the assignments were given he would pull a magazine out of a desk drawer, lean back in his chair and prop his feet up on the desk. Then he would alternately read and doze until the bell rang. The degree to which any of us learned was probably more an outcome of one’s native ability in math or purely accidental. But everybody got an A on their report card every quarter.
Mr. Miller was also our physical education teacher. In this role his teaching method was not much different. Outside we would play softball or touch football. In the gym we played basketball or volleyball. And Mr. Miller joined us in the games – just as if he were one of us. Everyone loved Mr. Miller. He was more our pal than our teacher.
But later, in high school and college, these striking contrasts in teaching styles took on profound dimensions – sometimes painful ones. I struggled mightily to navigate my way through math courses, but seemed to breeze through any course requiring reading, writing and analytical skills.
If everyone who graduates from high school this spring had met up with a few Miss Hornbuckles along the education trail, their odds of success would be vastly improved.