My seventh-grade English teacher, Mrs. Jenkins, would have felt right at home at Camp Pendleton whipping young Marines into shape.
I remember wondering at the time why my classmates and I were required to copy, word for word, Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky.” So I asked.
Big mistake. I don’t remember what Mrs. Jenkins said, but her glare and ramrod posture left nothing to the imagination. She might as well have just gotten in my face and barked, “Just do it, maggot!”
To this day, I can recite all of “Jabberwocky.” “Twas brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe ...”
Perhaps it’s a talent that could win me a bar bet late one dreary night. But even as an insecure 13-year-old who was just beginning to develop an interest in literature, I would have enjoyed trying to figure out exactly what Lewis Carroll was up to when he wrote “Jabberwocky.” No such luck.
Fast-forward four years. I’m in Mr. Menzer’s English class, locked into a discussion regarding a scene in “The Catcher in the Rye.” Is life truly a game that one plays according to the rules, as Mr. Spencer, Holden Caulfield’s history teacher claims, or can rule-breakers succeed by blazing their own trails?
Forty years later, I still remember that discussion. Mr. Menzer posed that question and just sat back and allowed his students to hash it out. Menzer wasn’t afraid to assign an edgy, controversial novel, one I’ve since read dozens of times, always discovering something new I’d overlooked before.
He wasn’t afraid to reveal his own humanity, sharing that he’d married late in life, to a woman he’d met through a dating service, taking that somewhat quirky route at the time. He wasn’t afraid to verbally zing lackadaisical students, using humor to subtly make a point.
Mr. Menzer was a testament to the power of the intangibles of good teaching.
Every day, I get multiple emails from one company or another swearing that they, and only they, have the foolproof way to align my curriculum with the Common Core State Standards. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve been advised to follow one behavior plan or another to make sure a challenging student can “find success” in my classroom.
I’ve been most successful, whether it’s teaching content or developing positive relationships with students, just by being myself.
I’m not afraid to say, “I don’t know” when I don’t have an answer to a student’s question. And a student has never objected when I add, “Let’s work together to find the answer.” My students appreciate my sense of humor, and that it’s more often than not directed at myself.
Any success I’ve achieved as a teacher is due to my willingness to take risks. My students expect the unexpected. It’s how I get their attention and manage to keep it, most of the time.
Can the intangibles of good teaching be taught? Is risk-taking just too risky for some? Research indicates that most teachers teach the way they were taught. Thank you, Mrs. Jenkins and Mr. Menzer, for helping me blaze my own trail.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.