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Friday, January 7, 2011

The Common Denominator

What do teachers and students have in common?  They're all people.  Too often, this similarity is overlooked if not entirely forgotten.  Teachers good and bad fall into their roles, and students, often with some resistance, follow suit.  Ignoring humanity in our school systems does no one any favors, and it only gets worse as the government focuses on test scores and statistics instead of on students.

As I considered who to highlight here, the choices seemed endless.  I could choose the tech teacher, who let me come to class late if I brought him coffee and taught me about being in news.  I could choose the math teacher who specialized in broadening our social consciousness.  I could choose the science teacher who preferred lengthy interesting discussions to papers and multiple choice questions, or the art teacher who was so clearly passionate about her subject.  In my long and illustrious school career, I had dozens of teachers, some good, some bad. But I only had one person.  Mr. St. Peter.

Mr. St. Peter was a short Irish man with a stubbly mustache.  He wore too many turtleneck sweaters and worked in as many bad puns per lesson as possible.  He used the Socratic Method, annoyingly at times, and always made you answer your own question through thinking.  He taught me chemistry.  Then he taught me physics.  It is because of Mr. St. Peter I pursued and completed a degree in Biology, even though I am bad at science.  It is because of Mr. St. Peter I forced myself to retake college physics twice, not giving up.  But these are all things he did as a teacher.  It's what he was as a person that really made him special.

As a kid, I never saw teachers or parents or anyone with any authority as a whole person.  I only thought of them in terms of how they related to me, and since they rarely if ever related to me as if I were a real person, I could never see them as a person, either.  Without that connection, the space that remained between us - teacher and student - was too wide to overcome and learning over the gap was difficult at best.

Mr. St. Peter was a teacher, above all, yes.  But if he was having a bad day, he didn't try to hide it underneath his professionalism.  He didn't bottle it up and take it out on students accidentally.  He explained it to us as if we were people capable of understanding human emotion, and because he did that, we became people capable of understanding human emotion.  Don't misunderstand, it wasn't all about him.  On an off day, he would honestly say at the beginning of class that he was having a rough time that day, and that it had nothing to do with us (he wisely remembered that to students, everything is about them, always).  Then he moved on with a weak pun, and we learned more about electricity or whatever we were learning that day.

When students didn't get it, he took pains to help them.  When students didn't care, he took pains to make them.  He appealed to these students not as a teacher trying to impart invaluable knowledge, but as a person trying to understand where the mental block lay.  More often than not, the student's problem had nothing to do with physics at all, and instead had to do with something personal.  Instead of completely ignoring this (as many teachers do because they don't know how to handle it) he acknowledged it and brought it into the lesson in a general way.  He was gentle when he ought be, playful when it helped, and intuitive always.  He never made a big deal out of the students' lives beyond the classroom; he simply let them know that he understood they existed, and he empathized by showing students that he, too, had a life outside teaching.

This knowledge of humanity - not pushed or promoted, but not ignored out of ignorance, laziness or helplessness - gave Mr. St. Peter a camaraderie with his students rarely achieved in the school system.  Many teachers can manage having a 'pet,' a student they believe in, a student they connect with, a student they view always as human.  Seldom can teachers manage seeing every student they come into contact with on that level.  So, as I write this piece in praise of him, know that it was not just me that he graced with the human elements I actually possessed, but every student in that school.

Even now, as a parent, I look back on Mr. St. Peter as a role model, as I struggle to remember that my two year olds are people, too.  They are not just babies, but people.  When you realize the common denominator, you make your job - and your life - easier.  You earn respect without trying.

Cheers, Mr. St. Peter.  I hope you're not having a rough day today.

**This is in cooperation with the blogshare over at Teaching Ain't For Heroes.  You have until the 12th to join, if you'd like!


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  1. It's my goal for a former student some day, some where, to say something like this about me.


  2. Isn't it lovely when people acknowledge each other as. . . fellow people?

    This was a beautiful tribute.

  3. St. Peter! Ah, that guy!

    I tell ya...



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