When our daughter was in the second grade, my parents sold the house they had lived in for fifty plus years in the Spokane Valley and bought a house around the corner from us. It was a hard move for them to make but one that, in the end, we were all grateful for. We saw each other daily, ran errands for one another and had dinner together nearly every night, sometimes at their place but more often than not at ours. As Katie got older, the after dinner activities increased – soccer games, piano recitals, school programs. But in the early days, one of the most frequent after dinner activities was “school” played out around the dining room table with Miss Katie, in her orange frame glasses as teacher and the four of us as her class. Despite our advanced ages and degrees, I think we formed a pretty representative mix.
Her unbridled enthusiasm for school has always been something of a mystery to me; I suspect that the only person at the table who might have shared her passion for school was her grandmother. “Ruthie” as grandma was referred to in class, was the star pupil. She always had her work done on time and neatly done at that. Naturally, if extra credit was on option, she did that as well. At the end of the year, Ruthie presented the class gift to Miss Katie; a ceramic coffee mug, adorned with an apple and blue forget me nots, and inscribed with the words “A hug for my favorite teacher!”
Grandpa and I were kind of middle of the pack students, both of us failing to complete our assignments from time to time or missing the mark when we did. My excuses about being too busy with dinner or picking up kids after school or taking pets to the vet fell on deaf ears. “Next time, try harder and start earlier!” It was an admonition that though kindly delivered didn’t leave much room for negotiation. By contrast, she was very gentle with Grandpa, and encouraged him by writing positive notes on his papers and giving him additional problems to solve as well as tutoring outside of class. I suspect he was her favorite.
Of all her students, however, her father posed the greatest challenge. Anyone who has ever taught has ultimately confronted him-the bright kid who could easily be top of the class but is satisfied to just get by. The one who directs his energy to reconstructing the problem rather than solving it. “Freddie” had a knack of coming up with an answer that was technically correct but clearly not the one the teacher had in mind. Still, she never gave up on him though he tested and tried her patience on a regular basis.
On these evenings, we adults assumed that we were playing a game with Katie; something guaranteed to entertain her and amuse us. In truth, when she donned her glasses and stood before us, it was all business for her and an initial step in what would ultimately lead to a career choice. She wrote out lesson plans and prepared work sheets. She corrected our papers, returning them with stars (Ruthie’s papers always) or comments and suggestions for revision. She provided us with a robust curriculum, including mathematics, literature and social studies. Spelling and penmanship were also important to her and yet another area at which some of us excelled and others fell behind.
If you count kindergarten, when Kate, as she is now known, finishes her current residency in anesthesiology, she will have spent the past twenty-five years in school or training of one sort or another. In the fall she will begin a two year fellowship in pediatric anesthesia. Along the way, she has been blessed with wonderful teachers who have inspired and challenged her to pick up the mantle and raise the bar. One in particular, she calls “the catalyst” for introducing her to biology. The past eight years have included medical school and residency where her teachers are commonly referred to as “attendings.” Her assessment of these individuals most often begins with an observation of whether or not they are effective as teachers.
She recently presented the research she is currently engaged in at “grand rounds” – a weekly educational presentation common to training in the medical environment. It was an important and exciting morning for her and when she told me about it afterwards, her enthusiasm was palpable with the most appreciated comments relating to her skill as a teacher. As intellectually interesting as “the immune reaction in patients with chronic pain” may have been, the kudos that made her day went to her ability to explain and clarify the topic.
Great teachers are a gift. They engage us, inform us and if we are receptive, they form us as well. They not only light the fire but provide us with the tools to fan the flame and keep the fire going, often in unexpected places. Like many young professionals, Kate will have an array of career options open to her and I fully expect her to explore several of them. Some will involve extensive travel and work in developing countries; many come with the promise of significant financial reward; still others will involve research in an academic setting. No matter the venue, there is one thing I am sure of: she will gauge her success in large part by her performance as a teacher; in how well she is able to pass along the gift.
So “A hug for my favorite teacher!” As one of her first pupils ever, I raise the coffee mug in salute, happy to know that I won’t be the last!