The national Parent-Teacher Association has set aside May 5-9 this year to say thanks to teachers. As someone who believes teachers aren’t appreciated nearly enough for all their efforts, I’m glad to join in.
My mother was a teacher — she taught kindergarten for years at St. Simon & Jude in Huntington Beach, Calif. But she was also my first teacher: She taught me to read (using traditional phonics) and devised an ingenious method for keeping me interested. She’d read to me from the Franklin W. Dixon Hardy Boys mystery series. I was so eager to find out what happened in the next chapter, I pushed myself to be able to read myself so I didn’t have to rely on somebody else to do the reading! And she’d take my sister and me to the Main Street branch of the Huntington Beach Library, where she encouraged me to leave every couple weeks with a new armload of books.
As a student at Liberty Christian High School, also in Huntington Beach, my favorite teacher was Bob Snyder, aka “Doctor Bob.” He taught science — everything from physical science to chemistry to anatomy and physiology. (He also taught photography, which back in those days meant actual 35mm film and chemical processing!)
I loved all of his classes, and even became his teaching assistant later in my high school career. That did not work out so well for me the day he told me the class pet — a snake — had escaped his enclosure, and that I should search for him. “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” Indiana Jones, I felt your pain that day.
Like all good teachers, Dr. Bob opened my eyes to a larger world around me, one that we could study, quantify and understand, according to rules developed through investigation and the scientific method. Instead of taking the wonder out of the physical universe, his classes actually increased my appreciation of it. My lifelong love of science and scientific discovery was born in his classroom.
Dr. Bob was an alumnus of Biola University, where I also studied and graduated. Although I was a communications student, most of my favorite teachers were outside of that discipline.
The first was Dr. David Peters, a professor of political science, a member of the La Mirada City Council, and one of the few openly Democratic members of the faculty. As an upperclassman, I took nearly every single political science class the university offered, and Peters was an excellent teacher. He exposed students, most of whom had been inculcated with the same political dogma their entire lives, to other perspectives, which sometimes led to tense classroom moments. But he also taught us to learn from and understand people of differing perspectives, an invaluable lesson that I’ve relied upon hundreds of times in my life and career.
It was his lectures on the perils of civil religion that helped shape my own views on the subject, and his real-life experience on the City Council gave his students insight into politics as applied as well as in theory, which everyone in the business knows are two very different things.
Another elective class led me to the classroom of Dr. Carol Jenkins, a professor of sociology. At the time, I had no idea what that discipline was all about, but I’m glad I signed up, since the professional and practical lessons of her classroom have stuck with me to this day. “What happens when unlike people meet?” was an oft-repeated question in her class, and I have thought about that often in the years since while covering the news.
Jenkins employed a technique that I ultimately used myself when I became a part-time instructor at UNLV in the journalism department. She told her students that it was permissible to bring a “cheat sheet” into class on test day, provided that it could be no larger than a 3-inch-by-5-inch index card. You could write as small as you wished, and include as much information as that physical space allowed, but no more.
I figured out pretty quickly that the need to reduce the most critical information to the small card required studying the whole of the subject matter, and, sure enough, during all tests I took, I only had to refer to my cheat card once. For everything else, I’d mastered the material.
A side note here: I took the time years later to seek out Dr. Peters and Dr. Jenkins, to thank them both and to tell them what an impact they had on my life and career. If you have a favorite teacher, I strongly encourage you to do that as well. Teachers obviously don’t do the job for the money, and the knowledge that their lessons and example have stuck with their former students, even changed the course of their lives and careers, is worth a great deal. So if you get the chance, make that call or send that email. You will make a teacher’s day.
My last favorite teacher was in the journalism department, was the adviser to the student newspaper when I was its editor, a person who taught me a great deal about the profession that I’d pursue for what has thus far been a 25-year career. Roberta Green Ahmanson was the former religion reporter for my hometown newspaper, the Orange County Register. She was an accomplished journalist, and a very smart woman, who taught me one should always be reading at least one book.
In those days, we had no computers to produce newspapers; we literally pasted copy onto full-size newspaper pages, from which they would ultimately make plates to print the final product. But Ahmanson would review those pages, and leave small Post-It notes indicating errors, from grammar or spelling or punctuation to unanswered questions in stories. The most depressing sight in the world was a page covered in yellow notes, but there was a lesson learned from each one.
It was Ahmanson who first introduced me to the idea that journalism wasn’t simply reporting both sides (or all sides) of a given story. Instead, it was about finding the truth, and telling it, regardless of where that truth led. While she had her own very strong political views, she never let them interfere with her advice to the students, and her red-pen notes on stories I’d prepared for her class were invaluable to me as I graduated into a career as a full-time journalist.
The bottom line? Teachers of all stripes — whether in kindergarten where a child is just starting to learn, or post-graduate professors giving professionals the tools they will need to succeed — are gifts. A good teacher is worth so much more than what they earn in salary; they have the potential to shape the future of our state, our nation and our world, by shaping individual lives.
So in this teacher appreciation week, and every week, let’s remember to give thanks and support to those people who’ve devoted themselves to one of the most noble professions that exists.