Which of your teachers inspired you the most?

How do teachers inspire powerful learning? A new Web site, Rethink Learning Now, is trying to stimulate debate about this question. It is seeking brief descriptions of effective and influential teachers. Here is my submission. I hope some of you will submit your experiences also and copy your statements here on Katy’s site. -Steven

The teacher who influenced me the most was Josiah Sheilds, my eighth grade American History teacher, whose class I entered 50 years ago this month.

It was not his lectures that I remember, nor his homework assignments or tests. No, what fascinated me were the trials of historical figures he conducted in his class.

Each month students charged and tried an important and controversial person of the time period being studied. Students took the roles of the accused, witnesses, lawyers, and jurors. The student lawyers had the largest roles, researching the time period, preparing opening and closing statements, recruiting and prepping witnesses, and cross-examining the opposition witnesses.

Preparing a case required hours of research. In the process we realized that one had to consider not only what had happened, but why it had happened, what had motivated the participants, and what effects the actions of the accused had had.

Suddenly history became not a list of facts to memorize, but a field rich with controversy, where the more you knew, the better you could substantiate your case. From reading bland textbooks and encyclopedias, we moved on to interpretive biographies and history magazines. Bus rides and lunchroom conversations began to focus on what each of us had learned and how we could use it to strengthen our cases. We learned from experience that the same set of facts could be used to support two completely opposite positions, and we became more critical of the interpretations we read.

Mr. Sheilds awakened in me a love of history which I have never lost. When I became a teacher it is no surprise that I accepted a position that allowed me to teach the course I had enjoyed so much, and I taught eighth grade history for the next 30 years. I always tried to find ways to involve my students just as Mr. Sheilds had involved us.

As I look at teaching today, with the heavy emphasis on covering standards that are far too numerous and detailed, with state tests that stress facts rather than interpretation, and teacher evaluation systems that place more weight on high test scores than on inspiring students, I fear we are moving away from the type of teaching that is most important: making history come alive for students and showing them the importance of looking at interpretations with a critical eye.

I never got to thank Mr. Sheilds or tell him that he had inspired me to pursue a career that has given me years of pleasure and satisfaction. But now, as I am retiring myself, I find some comfort in imagining that just as he influenced me greatly without knowing it, I may have had the same effect on some of my students.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Debora

    Far and away my best Teacher was Diane Feinstein, my sixth grade teacher at Larkey Elementary School in Walnut Creek.

    She had high expectations; she was the first person who presented the idea to me and to others that a very difficult childhood could be replaced with an adulthood full of promise and of intellectual stimulation. In her mainstream sixth grade class we learned art history, using a composition note book to first write what we saw or felt when we viewed paintings, drawings, collages, plays and mobiles, then what we felt when we touched various sculptures made of marble, wood, glass and metal. After our own observations she would give us direct instruction in the traits and techniques various artists where know for using. She would talk about their lives and how they overcame obstacles in early life. I still use those techniques today when evaluating art.

    Ms. Feinstein taught us, mostly white middle-class kids the value of farm workers. It was the years of the rise of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. We acted out what it would be like to have pesticides sprayed on us from the sky, not have a bathroom, sleeping outside under boards for shelter, not having a school to break the cycle of uneducated work and being at the mercy of a boss that could simply choose not to pay for the work and food supplied on those long days. We learned to feel, think, predict, research (primary and secondary sources) and evaluate.

    It was an amazing year, Students who were academically advanced were challenged to think and evaluate more deeply by looking at the systems which allowed the situation to thrive, comparing and contrasting different view points, looking at the moral and religious perspectives of all learning situations and the cultural validations we gave art, events and politics. Tall marching orders for a sixth grade class.

    No teacher, no school, and no curriculum quite compares. There were 30 or more students in the class and yet, I always felt the learning was designed for each and every student to achieve her or his personal best. When I find myself or a teacher slipping into mediocrity I always think of Diane Feinstein and how she would have asked me to analyze the situation from multiple view points. I have yet to visit a museum as an adult without remembering the plump, rosy women and children of Auguste Renoir or the bold, vivaciousness of the paintings of Frieda Kahlo.

  • Alice Spearman

    Mrs. Reifish, who taught me the meaning and how to interpret the writings of Homer, The Theiban Plays, Shakespere, and my favorite author Langston Hughes. She was my 10th, 11th and 12th grade AP English teacher at Castlemont Sr. High. I owe a lot of my adult moral thought progress to her. She taught me about justice, “What is just? Is it the law or is it the Moral law”. Bless her.

  • TheTruthHurts

    I had a few good teachers, but the most inspirational one was an English teacher who was simply never satisfied. A’s were worthy of praise, but if you could do better, he pushed you. He took be all you could be literally. He differentiated instruction magically using the same text but asking us to learn different things about it or do different things with it.

    He made you feel like you could do anything – and that you might have to do it.

  • Emily Shore

    The first person I thought of when I read this post was my 6th grade teacher, Noel Kurtz. When I was in fourth grade he came to our classroom to speak to the girls about joining the co-ed after school basketball program. Ten years later it was the girls from this elementary school that accounted for almost half the players on a high school state championship team.

    That was great, of course. But that’s not why I feel so fondly about Mr. Kurtz. Rather, my appreciation is great because that initial gesture opened us up to experiencing so much learning in his classroom two years later. He was the type of teacher that would challenge students, give firm limits, but all the time express his caring and confidence. Because we knew he was on our side it felt like a compliment when he told us that he thought we could push ourselves harder and do better.

    The second person I think of when I read this post is actually you, Steve. When i was teaching in your reading program at Frick you helped me gain so much confidence in my ability to work with, teach and encourage young people. I saw students, some of whom had a lot of trouble being successful in their regular classrooms, beaming with pride over their newly improved reading skills and I thought, “hey, this teaching thing is something I think I can do.” And this was all because of your calm and steady presence over the program. And in your helping me to adjust my expectations and learn how to let my personality and skills shine through within a larger institutional system.

    My professional life as an educator has by no means been linear (long term sub, private and group guitar teacher, softball coach, high school health outreach worker and educator, holistic health teacher, acupuncture school adjunct professor…) but there is in my mind a common thread which my mind often comes back to when I’m grasping for some sense of grounding – that second floor room at Frick, tape recorders set up on the desks, and four to six students with headphones reading naturally with focus, wonder, and pride.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Emily, thank you for your wonderful response to my post. You did an outstanding job with our Read Naturally program, and I’m happy that your experiences have helped lead you to other teaching jobs.

  • Barbara Paulsen Aney

    OMG! I was reading the posting above made by Deborah. Miss Feinstein was my best teacher as well. She was my 6th grade teacher at Larkey Elementary. She made me feel I could accomplish anything. She took an interest in each and every one of us. She taught me so much! I wonder if she is still teaching. She took us on a field trip to San Francisco, which was a blast! We learned so much about the Chinese culture. She was the best teacher ever! Thank you so much! Miss Feinstein! Sincerely Barbara Paulsen Aney