Skip to content


What qualifies anyone to be a teacher? How does one learn to teach? What is teaching? I would dare to say that every one of us can remember a favorite teacher (or teachers if fortunate enough); and that we can name every single one of them. Unfortunately for many of us, their names would be limited to the fingers on one hand. We learn far more about teaching and how to teach from our favorite teachers than from all the courses we can and are required to take on learning how to teach.

I was fortunate; I had many and I can name most, if not all, of them. My 4th grade teacher, Miss Briscoe, at Commodore Stockton Elementary School in Chinatown, San Francisco, incorporated art and music in her instruction. She was warm, caring, and approachable; a breath of fresh air unlike the rigid, harsh, humorless demeanor of her colleagues. And she dressed colorfully, a dramatic departure from her colleagues for whom different shades of black was the preferred color. Mr. Olsen, my trigonometry teacher at George Washington High School, gave a memorable introduction on the very first day of class. Mr. Olsen explained that he was a chemistry teacher and apologized that he was not trained to teach trigonometry. He was filling in for the regular teacher who was out on medical leave. Mr. Olsen went on to explain how he would teach a subject that was not in his field. He promised to work hard to stay one or more steps ahead of us with each lesson; and teach us what he had learned in his advance preparation for each class. Mr. Olsen taught me that teaching is being a fellow learner.

West Woon was my first Sunday School teacher. I don’t remember anything about the Bible that he taught me. I do remember the very first time he greeted me. He grabbed my hand, shaking it like I was an adult equal. And I remember his inviting us to his home one Sunday afternoon and treating us to grilled hamburgers. Benson Kwan, my Junior High Sunday School teacher, had the best organized lesson plans I had ever experienced—logical, systematic—and he always stayed on schedule. Roger Lim, my High School Sunday School Teacher, encouraged critical thinking, teaching me to value questions more than answers because questions encourage openness and serve as a constant reminder that learning is a life-long process. Questions keep idolatry in check, helping to restrain me from ever thinking or believing that I could manage and possess God.

James Muilenburg and David Noel Freedman taught me Old Testament. They demonstrated the power of loving and being passionate about your subject. The Old Testament came alive in their delicate and respectful handling of the texts, daring never to convey a sense of mastery; rather, to stand in awe of the ever present mystery and revelations from the text.

My list would not be complete without the memory of some of the worst teachers I have ever had. Bad teachers are every bit as instructive as good ones. I will name only one. Mr. Knapton was reputed to be the best English Composition teacher at our high school. His class was the one to sign up for if you had any aspirations of making it to the University of California. He handed back to me the very first composition I ever wrote for him, scrawled across the page in large red letters—“You will never be a writer!” To this day, I am haunted still by that judgment even though I have done lots of writing over the years. What is significant is that his judgment did not rob me of a love of writing; and that it does not matter to me whether I am good at it or not.

Teaching is an art; it is more than method. And it is much more than transmuting information. Teaching is honoring your students in all their potential (and mystery). I dare to teach because I enter into it with deep humility and modesty. What qualifies me are not my academic degrees, my research and publication, my knowledge. What qualifies me is my fundamental belief in, respect for, love and honor of my fellow learners. In the introduction to every Hebrew class I taught, I made this promise to the class: “You have to work hard to fail my class.” I have never failed anyone in any of my classes because no one has ever given up on themselves.

10 thoughts on “Teaching”

  1. Cal, Not too late to add something about Miss Coleman perhaps?
    I don’t know her but find that bad teachers can give great lessons as you wrote in a reverse way.

  2. Miss Coleman did not teach her classes. She ruled her classes, with a ruler, using it to pound on the desk of any student whom she deemed unworthy.

    1. In light of the interest and questions generated by this week’s post, especially the request for my comments about other teachers, I would love it if my readers would add their experiences and opinions. I am haunted still by Miss Coleman’s piercing eyes just above the arithmetic flash cards, threatening to hit us with the ruler if we gave the wrong answer.

      1. I wrote this in my book of reminiscences two years ago:
        In my day, Mt. Pleasant was one of the two or three leading public high schools in the state [Delaware] and as such attracted outstanding teachers. Not all my teachers were stars, but many were. Four favorite teachers come to mind, among whom the fourth I’ll mention stands out.

        Miss Merrill was of slight build, a quiet but firm soul who in eleventh-grade English taught me the rules of grammar with an amiable but rigorous exactitude, and my memory of them endured. For the last 60 years I’ve been grateful.

        Mr. Einolf taught me German in eleventh and twelfth grade. He taught in German only, from two all-German textbooks (Deutsch für Ausländer, parts I and II) and, for those who were able to stay onboard, an all-German Sprachlehre für Ausländer (10th edition 1961, original 1929) from the same Munich publisher. He had an amazing patience for simple repetition. “Was ist das?” he would ask, placing his pointer on a color chart. “Das ist rot,” we were to reply. He pointed to a map. “Wo liegt Berlin?” “Berlin liegt in Deutschland,” we replied. “Noch einmal,” he would say, then again, “Noch einmal,” and over and over. The tedium notwithstanding, his patience allowed him to pull off teaching in German, for students who accepted the challenge. (After class you could, if you were intent, get him to answer a question or two in English.) I confirmed the value of repetition by rereading the textbook assignments frequently, setting a good foundation for later study.

        Mr. Boucher (BAOW-cher) I had my last two years, in solid geometry and calculus. He didn’t so much teach us these subjects as sit back and watch us teach ourselves. There was no doubt he knew the subjects and was an able teacher. He would often start a class by presenting the topic for the day at the whiteboard, and he seemed good at it. But most of the class time was taken up with students doing problems at the whiteboard, which would then be discussed, mostly by the students. What Boucher, then in his mid thirties, was mainly interested in was following the stock market—he would often leave the classroom to phone his broker—and inculcating in his students conservative thinking. Much of nearly every class consisted of Boucher expounding on conservative ideas, attitudes, and principles. I experimented with these, becoming the president of the stock market club and putting myself on the mailing list for free materials from the John Birch Society. The summer after my junior year, Boucher talked a classmate and me into running one of the miniature golf courses he owned, on Governor Printz Blvd near my old neighborhood of Edgemoor. We spent a couple of weeks sprucing up the course after it had lain unused during the winter. That done, from then on we just handed out clubs and took in cash. The work provided a decent wage and a percentage of the gross, but from Boucher’s perspective it was mainly a lesson in entrepreneurship.

        Boucher was the only teacher to invite our class to his home, which was in Pennsylvania, where things were more expensive than in Delaware. While suitably homey, his house and spacious property were noticeably upmarket. (There I heard for the first time, after slipping away from the group, the 1812 Overture, when I took the liberty to play his record on his stereo.) By his early forties Boucher had founded two successful land development businesses. He retired from teaching in his late fifties to focus on regional philanthropy. When he died at 81 in 2006, he was remembered for his character, accomplishments, and legacy. I enjoyed Boucher’s classes. I got good grades in math and an 800 on the math SAT, the highest possible score. But Boucher’s teaching failed to stick. I never again invested in individual stocks. I voted for Johnson against Goldwater in 1964, the first national election I was eligible to vote in. And in college math I (unlike many of my Boucher classmates) met with disaster from day one. Boucher was a favorite teacher, but his teaching went for naught.

        In retrospect, the teacher who most excited me was Mr. Schomborg, my tenth-grade English teacher (who, I only later found out, was a neighbor and close friend of Miss Merrill—both were single).

        The fact that I had been a slacker in ninth grade, in English class as much as any other, and that I was coming out of those doldrums by the time I encountered Schomborg in tenth grade, may have figured in my connecting with him—not personally but with his intriguing manner. Schomborg continually sparked my curiosity. He was sly, humorous (rarely overtly funny), ironic, unpredictable in a kindly way, always glancing obliquely, in fact and metaphorically. I have no memory of what he taught or what I learned in his class—we probably read and discussed short stories at least—other than the following two moments. The day after a classmate’s mother died, Schomborg told us, with the classmate sitting there, that her death was not a tragedy and then introduced to us the three things that Aristotle said made for a tragedy. That lesson was about more than information. Schomborg was inviting us, by implication, to think about the critical use of language, and about truth and perspective. The second moment occurred when the eleventh-grade history teacher, Mr. Pollari (whom we hadn’t met yet), had just lost an election for state office. The day after, Schomborg began class by musing that two things always reminded him of Finland—Mr. Pollari (a Finnish American) and Sibelius’s Finlandia. This prompted me to go out and find out what Finlandia was. And I recall John Himes, a star of the basketball team who sat next to me in Schomborg’s class, leaning over and telling me that without the (modest) help I would occasionally give him he wouldn’t possibly pass the class. After college, John, no slouch in fact, worked his way up in the DuPont company and eventually became the senior vice president for corporate strategy. Maybe he just found Schomborg too baffling. Schomborg it was to whom I gave the booklet of essays I wrote for myself a year later, inviting his critical comments. What made Schomborg my most favorite teacher is that he made being interested interesting—really interesting.

        1. Thank you, Bob, for sharing your list of favorite teachers and why. What I find so interesting and revealing is how these favorite teachers shape the persons we become.

  3. I suppose though, as God fearing people, we can surmise that Miss Coleman must have suffered greatly herself to have learned those ways of adapting to and survive in the world around.

  4. Miss Coleman is guilty of physical abuse:
    Step on students feet to make a point.
    Grabbed a student by the back of his shirt and pounded the student’s head against the blackboard to emphasis that he was not following the instructions written on the blackboard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *