Why is it that social gatherings where a teacher is present inevitably lead to horror stories about kid-killer teachers or absurd tales about incompetent ones? Though many of us have teachers who change our lives, those are rarely the narratives we hear in our social dialogue.
Perhaps it’s because the consummate teachers consistently do great things without fanfare every day. They engage us, they lure us in, they make us love their subject through their own passion. But if asked to name one thing that teacher did, most of us have to think hard before we can point to a single moment that would do justice to the skill of a master teacher.
Dr. James B. Shrewsbury became my adviser the second semester of my freshman year. I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I changed subjects twice before I landed in his English 102 class, the second semester of freshman composition. He was a short, wiry man with white hair, piercing blue eyes, and a Santa-style white beard. When he was thinking hard or listening carefully, he chewed his upper lip, almost as if he were tasting his thoughts before he voiced them.
He began the class by having us read short stories and imitate the sentence styles of great writers, and for the first time I learned that I could sometimes capture beauty in the flow of a sentence. And when we read Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity,” a story about a young girl who visits a nursing home solely to get points as a Campfire Girl, I wrote a paper analyzing every literary device in the story to show how the young girl is visiting the home for all the wrong reasons. But I entirely missed the wry humor in the story.
As the teaching assistant handed back the papers, Dr. Shrewsbury turned on the overhead and projected an essay onto the screen. I recognized the paper, my name removed but the tight curl of the cursive distinctively my handwriting. Dr. Shrewsbury walked us through the paper, pointing again and again to its strengths. As he got to the end, he pointed to his closing comment—A very good first paper! I breathed a sigh of relief…until he continued.
“But let’s look at this one word the writer used. The writer has pointed out that the little girl isn’t really performing an act of charity, and that’s right. But do you think this is the right word?”
Pointing to a phrase near the bottom of the first page, Dr. Shrewsbury touched his finger to the words the debauchery of Marian’s motives. He smiled when it was clear that no one in the room, least of all the writer, knew what the word meant, and then explained that the word did indeed mean corrupt, the word the writer seemed to intend, but that it had the connotation of a dirty old man.
Chewing his upper lip, he stroked his beard and allowed himself the hint of a smile as the class laughed. “There you have it,” he said. “Never use a thesaurus to try to make yourself sound more intelligent. Use it to remind yourself of words you already know. Or take the time to learn the nuances of the word.”
Miserable, I couldn’t meet his eyes as I left the classroom. Though he had been gentle, I had rarely received criticism on my work in high school. It would be years before I could laughingly tell that story to my own students to prevent them, in advance, from suffering similar humiliation.
But at the end of the semester, Dr. Shrewsbury invited me to be his student assistant for his freshman composition classes. He assured me that I was a “born teacher,” and he made me believe in myself. After that, I signed up for every course he taught, garnering far more credits in English than were required for certification.
But how did he do that? I don’t really remember. The story I do remember could have been one of silent chagrin in the hands of a lesser teacher. But Dr. Shrewsbury taught me by both word and example to find something to praise before pointing out weaknesses. And while no teacher is ever perfect for every child, this is Dr. Shrewsbury’s legacy.
So tell me about a teacher who deserves your gratitude. Or better yet, tell the teacher.