I have been thinking about the power of good teachers. The kind that you remember for the rest of your lives and, whose words still have an influence on your life now. One of my all-time favourite movies that portrays such an influence is Dead Poets Society. Robin Williams brilliantly plays a character called John Keating, an English teacher who’s unusual but passionate way of teaching and relating to his students are at total odds with the strict and staid ways of an all-boys school in the 1950’s. He encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary,” and to “seize the day.” If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Much like a good teacher, it’s a movie that stays with you forever.
My experience with teachers was mostly positive. I had excellent teachers both in Primary School and High School with only a couple of notable exceptions who wielded their power in a mean way.
There was the elderly spinster who taught the early primary years. She was infamous for patrolling the school yard in her scary hair net, tennis table bat in hand. As a seven-year-old girl, I can remember quite clearly sitting on a bench in the lunch shed with my feet up, saving a seat for my younger cousin Kellie. She came into the shed and before I knew it had whacked me across the back of the legs as she told me off for having my feet up on said bench. I don’t think there was a primary school student who escaped the wrath of her bat. Can you imagine if that happened now?
Then when I was in Year 6, a teacher humiliated me in front of two full classrooms. I was wearing new blue trousers with a matching blue t-shirt and then a checked shirt over the top left open and loose. I wore the shirt like that because my waist was so tiny that Mum had to sew giant pin tucks into the waistband of the pants so that they would stay up. The shirt worn over the top covered them up entirely. As this teacher walked along the corridor of the open space unit, I was in the second to last classroom, and I was walking back to my seat. In his big booming voice, he shouted: “Lory, tuck that shirt in.” I was mortified. To this day I can still feel how embarrassed I was. Being incredibly vain and not shy about voicing my opinion even then I replied a very confident “No.” He was less than impressed. He yelled his request again, I stood my ground as there was no way I was going to ruin the illusion of my fabulous outfit, and I was dragged to the principal’s office, crying by this stage as all eyes were on me. I don’t remember the ins and outs of the conversation that ensued in that office. Suffice to say when my Mum came to pick me up at the end of that day and saw how upset I still was she flew back into that office. A heated conversation took place that saw Mum return to me in the car with a very red face and a “there will be no further problem with what you wear Lory EVER again!” Go, Mum.
My Year 6 teacher at the time was a cool looking, smartly dressed long haired young man. He was furious with that incident and did not hide his displeasure for me being reduced to tears. As he handed out books for the next lesson once I had returned to class, he got to me, and he leant over and said in the kindest of voices, “Good for you standing your ground.”
I had him for Year 7 too, and he was absolutely the first teacher who had a real positive influence on me for all the right reasons. He once wrote in one of my report cards; “Lory has strong opinions and is not afraid to share them, and I encourage this whole heartedly.” I feel that was pretty progressive for 1976. I actually continued to visit him in his classroom until I was 18 years old and would talk to him about any problems I had, job prospects and just life in general. He had a similar rapport with many other students too, but I also had a few friends who did not gel with him at all. It’s interesting how the same teacher can have such a different influence on a classroom of students.
I started high school nervously like everyone else. I went from the comfort and familiarity of a small primary school to a high school that was so massive it was spread over two campuses, separated by a large oval. It was imposing. I was lucky though, all my friends were at the same school, and before long it was the new normal.
The classic underachiever I coasted through the first few years. I was a good student, didn’t get into trouble and got on well with all my teachers. My Year 8 Art teacher was memorable in that he gave me straight A’s on the proviso that I introduced him to my older sister at the end of the year. The thing about that was I couldn’t and can’t draw to save my life, and I don’t have a sister. Lol.
But my “John Keating” came along in Year 9 and taught me for the next two years. He was my English teacher, and his name was Dennis Carlsson. He was quietly spoken but held a captive audience. He was passionate about teaching all of us. He was encouraging and pushed for you to be better in the most nurturing of ways. The lessons he taught he would relate back to real life. He believed in me and made me feel I was capable of anything. Every word he said I felt he was talking just to me – I hung off every single thing he said. As a bit of a rebellious teenager, his lessons gave me direction. I looked forward to them, and I looked forward to talking to him. I would wait with bated breath as he marked my essays as his opinion was so important to me. His validation and encouragement were everything. The comments he would write in the margins of my books I would re-read and analyse over and over. They were always positive as if he knew that even when I got things wrong, he had to handle me sensitively.
It was to him that I confided my love of writing. We talked about journalism as a career option, but he said he did not want me to lose the art of honest storytelling. He told me that when he set the essay task where he provided the initial first line and then we had to write a story from there, that he would really look forward to reading what I came up with as it was always personal and raw. In my report card, he wrote that my writing possessed a “maturity beyond her years.” I was thrilled.
Fast forward to the following year and even though my love of English as a subject hadn’t changed and my joy at still having Mr Carlsson as my teacher was evident, my commitment and effort took a “teenage” nose dive. He was on to me like a shot. Made me wait back after class one day and gave me a firm but friendly talking to about not being an underachiever and how disappointed FOR me he would be if I didn’t continue to strive hard. He did not want me to waste my “potential.” A lot more was said, and I was in tears at the end of it, but that conversation will stay with me forever. His use of disappointed FOR me not IN me……………..brilliant use of words. I felt terrible, thinking I had let him down. I continued to be a too talkative student (yep, that sounds just like my Matthew) in my other classes but for Mr Carlsson, I gave my very best. He believed in me, and everyone needs that from someone other than family.
So as much as I loved English that was how much I hated Math. Again I had really great teachers but just struggled to “get it.” My Year 10 teacher was a gruff, sarcastic man who I actually really liked. He would go through a problem on the blackboard and then say to the class in general “Now are we all understanding? Can we move on?” Without waiting for a response, he would then good naturedly turn to me and in a sarcastic voice would say “What about you Millie?” (A name I got called a bit as my surname was Milligan.) I would roll my eyes in feigned annoyance if I knew it but more often than not I had yet another question to ask and he, in turn, would roll his eyes but never seemed to mind in going over the problem again. It was fun, good natured banter.
However, it is he who I think could have used his power wisely and steered me in an academic direction I didn’t take, but with his encouragement, I just may have.
We were at the end of Year 10 and starting to plan our Year 11 subject choices. Being lazy I was looking at doing the Year 11 Business Course. I loved typing, found it easy, loved English, and it had the added bonus of dropping Math and Science. YAY!!! I wouldn’t have to try quite so hard. One day after a Math lesson this teacher asked me what my plans were for the following year. I said that I was thinking of doing the Business Course. His response was belittling although, given the friendly banter we shared I don’t believe he expected me to take his opinion so offensively. Anyway, he laughed at me. He said that trained monkeys can type. Do you want to be a trained monkey? You are not the dumbest in my class……………I don’t think. I was embarrassed and furious all at once and being the stubborn teenager I was it was like a red rag to a bull. *#@* you! So where a few minutes before that conversation I was “thinking” about the Business Course, a few moments after I was doing it no matter what.
Sadly I think if he had had an honest, adult conversation with me and gave me some kind of encouragement that I would have coped with Year 11 Math, as that was a real concern for me, I would have listened to him. As an adult, I really regret taking the easier path and often wonder how different things would have been had I went on to study further. Again, the power of a teacher.
As I type this, I am looking at an old school photo of myself. A young happy girl with messy hair, freckles and eyes full of optimism. I had a fantastic, loving family and lots of great friends. But every kid needs that adult in their life that believes in them when they don’t have to. Who chooses to nurture and guide. Finds a way to engage them. Invests in their future.
We all need a teacher like “John Keating.” I had mine, and I will forever be grateful to him. He added the spark required to ignite the fire simmering within me. Who knows, if not for him I may never have started this blog.
Who was your “John Keating?”