Great Teachers

I subscribe to a site which gives writing prompts,  That way, if you’re stuck, you can write about something.  I suppose, also that the prompts can jog your memory as well.  I had been thinking of writing about a specific teacher I’d had in the past.  Even before NY Times wrote about people finding past teachers on Facebook and showering them with praise, I had been looking for this teacher.  Then I saw the prompt: Describe the worst teacher you ever had: The Miseducation of Youth.  Wow.

As a teacher, this is an arrow straight to the heart.  While I know not every teacher ends up being or even wanting to be inspiring, I don’t think most are out there trying to “ruin” anyone’s life.  A site prompt designed to skewer.  OUCH.  Will I answer it? Yes.  However, right now I want to lay claim to those great teachers I’ve had.

Mrs. May (Mae) Watkins –kindergarten– Phillips School:  This woman was AMAZING.  I actually cried when I heard she’d passed away.  Her classroom was just wonderful to be in.  She was warm, loving, no-nonsense, and practical.  We learned to be in control and do what needed to be done.  Even after I left the school and just waited for my bus, she continued to be a warm spirit in my life.

Mr. Dennis Deardorff — 6th, 7th, & 8th — Des Moines Traditional School: Mr. Deardorff is my favorite teacher EVER!  Yes, it is he whom I have been trying to find.  The first thing he ever did was to retest all of us and changed our reading groups.  Suddenly I wasn’t “in the middle” and ignorable.  I was at the top.  Then he taught us to write poetry.  I don’t remember the specific lessons as much as the practice.  Our poetry hung around the room.  He compelled everyone to attempt everything once.  More than anything learning poetry pushed the need for specific and descriptive language.  It’s the reason, I feel, that I became a good writer in high school.  I had already learned to be very specific.  He also read the most interesting books.  He treated us like adults.  It was exciting, scary, and liberating.

Mr. Max Means — 7th and 8th grade — Des Moines Traditional School:  He taught organization, note taking, curiosity, and was willing to try out new things.  I felt he was sexist and preferred the boys, but I can still, to this day, picture and probably draw the paramecium we studied.  Not to mention that when we dissected frogs, we knew what we were getting into.  He had paralyzed one, opened it, and allowed us to look at all the organs while they were working.  That was cool.

Mrs. Kay McCullum — Rhetoric Teacher — Des Moines East High School: Mrs. McCullum was both my 10th and senior year English teacher.  She was upbeat, fun, and had a way of making us work that didn’t feel like it.  I enjoyed her candor.  I also respected her enough to rearrange my senior year schedule (which had been PERFECT I tell you!) to move classes.  She felt her 5th period class didn’t have enough strong (read: opinionated and talkative) people in it so would I switch.  It was a pain because the office felt I was pulling a “fast one” and I had to have my dad go down to take care of it.  Mrs. McCullum conveyed the importance of finding your own way in literature.  Plus, in 10th grade, she took over for easily one of the most type-A unpleasant teachers I’d ever had.  He died.  Life’s like that.

Mr. John Phillips — Economic Teacher — Des Moines East High School:  He was just cool.  I don’t even know that there’s more to say than that.  However, without needing to, he helped me out on more than one occasion.  The first is when my mom was undergoing a biopsy to see if she had breast cancer.  I was called into school as absent, but had a test in his class.  If things went OK, I was going to walk over to school and take the test.  Happily, Mom was fine — no cancer.  Which means, I was BOOKING it over to school.  When I arrived the test had started.  He gave me “the look”, pointed to the absence list, asked what was going on.  When I explained (out of breath and finally shaking from the situation), he informed me there was NO WAY he was giving me the test.  He told me to sit down, relax, and be quiet.  I didn’t realize, but he did, the emotional toil.  He was right, I couldn’t have taken the test and done my best.  The other two occasions, well, let’s just say I was having some “attendance” issues in my senior year. He helped me “fix” them.

Mr. Jim Engler — Art History — Grand View College (now University):  In his class you would analyze every painting, every painter, and you would learn to analyze unknown paintings.  He stressed the importance of using and creating the best study guides.  Of course, it was my friend, Ericka, who had the most outstanding guide which he used to show us what he wanted.  She’s like that.  He taught the difference between memorization and learning.  As he pointed out, you WRITE DOWN the artist’s dates because that can always be found, but you LEARN the artist’s style.

Dr. David Thuente — Literature Courses/Advisor — Grand View College (now University): OK, let’s start with the fact that he smoked in class.  I laugh now, because that would never happen.  Of course, it wasn’t supposed to happen then.  He would grab a chair, crack the window, sit near it and conduct class.  His impact on me was immediate.  He’s the reason I switched from Media to English.  I walked into his philosophy class as a freshman.  He asked us if any of us were freshman or sophomores, waited for the hands, and then told us to “get out.” I didn’t leave, but I was anxious. I talked to some friends at school (when I should have been in class) about it. They all recommended switching to the religion classes as they were easier (you HAD to take either religion or philosophy, preferably both) and had less homework.  When I returned to class the next day, I was told to wait after, grilled as to where I was, and why I wasn’t in class.  I explained that I felt that I was over my head to which case I got the full, “Did you pass Freshman English? Who was your teacher? What did you get? Oh, I’ve heard about you. And finally, You’ll do fine.  Stay.”  It was the BEST class, and I did do well. I’m pleased that he gave me the chance.

For me, great teachers were the ones who made me think, pushed me forward, and even knew when to make me pull back. It’s true with teaching, it’s all about the relationships and being given the chance to show who you are and what you can do.


2 thoughts on “Great Teachers

  1. Karl Thacker says:

    Hello Suzanne

    I must admit I do not recognize your face, but I am a Former DM Traditional student as well. From 3rd grade with Mrs. Hickey the year the school started at the old Jefferson Elementary through to 7th grade while the school was at the old McKinley Elementary building.

    I’ve also wondered what happened with some of the teachers….. Mrs. Mann was one of my favorites, and I believe it was she that I saw retired within the last year or two. Seems like Mrs. Major/s was the 5th grade teacher. Mrs. Thill was the librarian, and I played soccer with her son for few years. Looking at the Polk County Assessor’s site, she still lives in Des Moines.

    It appears I just found an entry for Mrs. (Shirley) Gooch, the art teacher on Google. The piece I found mentions she retired in 2011 after 37 years as an art teacher for DMPS.

    Karl Thacker

  2. jobyamen says:

    I had Mr Deardorff at Goodrell around 93. Great teacher, someone mentioned he passed, but I cant find any evidence of it

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