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Long Story: The Power of Mediocre Teachers

July 17, 2020

Teacher meltdowns have always been fun to watch, no matter when you were growing up. (image via wikimedia)

A lot of public schools have announced that they’re conducting most of their classes online at the beginning of this new academic year, and that makes me wonder how my former teachers from the 1980s would have handled this new educational format.

When I look back, I think I would have regretted not seeing some of my teachers in action in a classroom.

I remember one English teacher, Mr. Faggins (pronounced Fay-Guns).  It’s weird that I was inspired to write in Mr. Fay-gun’s class because he wasn’t an inspirational teacher.  He read novels to us in a monotone voice (my voice is monotone too, so I can relate) and seemed to go out of his way to make class boring.

Mr. Fay-guns wasn’t a bad teacher; he just wasn’t inspirational.  None of my high school teachers were.  One teacher was perspirational.  My senior math teacher reeked of body odor, and his white shirts had constant wet spots under the armpits.  Looking back, I feel bad for him.  The poor guy was probably nervous all the time, being surrounded by high school kids who weren’t interested in calculus (I wasn’t either, but I needed the grade).  I would have been nervous too.

Mr. Dillon, my tenth grade social studies teacher, sat at his desk and read the newspaper to us for about 15 minutes each period.  Since he liked sports, we usually talked about football in the fall and baseball in the spring.  I liked Mr. Dillon’s class, but he wasn’t inspirational at all.

Mr. McAllister, my 11th grade government teacher, called me “Jimmy, the Geek” every day.  I was a geek, but nobody else ever called me a geek to my face.    There was a football prognosticator on television back then called Jimmy the Greek, but I don’t think Mr. McAllister was making a play on words because he called a bunch of other smart kids “geek,” and I was the only Jimmy.  He called other kids worse names: “moron,”  “dipstick,” “dummy,” “el stupido,” and “moose breath” were his favorites.  With Mr. McAllister, “geek” was about as good as any student was going to get.  That wasn’t very inspirational.

Mrs. Mitchell, my junior math teacher (pre-calculus?) had monstrous flaps under her arms that waved like a rolling tide whenever she wrote on the chalkboard, and she usually spent the whole period talking and writing on the chalkboard.  I didn’t even notice the flaps until a friend pointed them out (thanks a lot!), and then I couldn’t pay attention to anything else.  I obsessed over the arm flaps, almost like Ahab did with the whale.  To make matters even worse, Mrs. Mitchell always went sleeveless.  Even on the coldest of wintry days, she went sleeveless, and her intense writing almost made me motion sick.

I’m not trying to make fun of her.  If we had pointed out Mrs. Mitchell’s arm flaps to her, she could have easily pointed out all of our flaws to us.  Half of us had so many zits that we could have played connect-the-dots with each other.  Several of us had bad teeth, one kid walked funny, and several others were just plain goofy looking and were never going to change, no matter what. We probably didn’t inspire her either.

The closest a teacher ever came to inspirational was my over-sensitive ninth-grade English teacher.   She tried to be inspirational by reading some high-brow poetry that “spoke” to her.  She read it dramatically to the class, and we sat there awkwardly as she almost acted out the narrative within the poem.  It was deep (and probably moving), so we didn’t get it, but she was trying really hard, and we sat quietly out of respect (and curiosity).  When she was done, there was a silence where she probably expected at least half-hearted applause.

Instead, some kid farted really loud(ly).  And then we laughed.

I hope my over-sensitive ninth-grade English teacher realized at some point (in her life or career) that we weren’t laughing at her performance.  If there’s a silence in the classroom and a kid fills that void with flatulence, somebody’s going to laugh.  Personally, I blame the farter.

This is probably what happens to a lot of teachers; they go into the profession thinking they are going to inspire a bunch of kids, and then they get farted on (literally and metaphorically).

This reaction might be a surprise to novice teachers.  We’ve all probably seen the movies with the teacher (usually young and not of the same race/ethnicity/socioeconomic status as the students) giving a speech and the students sitting quietly, hypnotized, mouths almost slack-jawed open, with quiet dramatic music in the background as the idealistic teacher “reaches” the kids.

In reality, there’s no background music, and some kid always farts.

I remember all of these teachers because I interacted with them every day.  I might not have enjoyed all my interactions (I’m pretty sure the teachers didn’t either), but I also wouldn’t have these memories without them.  I’m pretty sure it’s difficult to have memorable high school classes online.  I don’t know; maybe I’m wrong.

Getting back to “Long Story,” if Mr. Fay-Guns had taught me online, I might not ever have been inspired to write in his class.  But despite being a mediocre teacher with a monotone voice and a boring class, Mr. Fay-Guns did something that actually made me want to write.

And I’ll start to explain that in the next episode.

To be continued in Long Story: The Cheerleader with Really Nice Legs.

*****

To start “Long Story” from the beginning, read

Long Story (Part 1): Teachers with Funny Names .

*****

This original version of this episode was published in Dysfunctional Literacy on November 15, 2012 .

From → Long Story

4 Comments
  1. I’ve dated a few teachers and they always give me these glamorous speeches about inspiring the next generation etc. and I’m thinking, “you’re going to end up old, alone, poor and the butt of a million jokes.” There’s a bit of cynicism there, but the truth don’t lie.

    • “…and the butt of a million jokes.”-

      Your comment reminds me of a Norm MacDonald standup routine where he sarcastically calls teachers “the real heroes.” I laughed when I watched/heard it, but I can see why teachers might not appreciate it much.

  2. I come from a long line of educators and healthcare workers. I count my lucky stars that healthcare spoke to me, and that I don’t really like other peoples’ children (there are days that I don’t like mine either). Then again, do teacher actually LIKE children?

  3. I teach drawing at a community college. I do my best to deliver a lively class, but my efforts to educate and entertain are sometimes met by the dreaded, collective, dead-eyed stare. I might as well be teaching perspective to zombies. My enthusiasm falters when I hit the wall of their indifference. I push through by pretending that I’m dealing with motivated, intellectually curious students.

    High school teachers probably wear down over time until they teach by routine while ignoring student response. That’s one way to survive.

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