Lessons for the Teacher

This is a post about teaching, but it starts with a visit to my doctor’s office to have some blood drawn for a routine check of my thyroid levels.

I smile at the nurse who draws my blood because she seems just a tad weary, or harried, or both on this cold, rainy day just after Halloween.

“Did you have many trick-or-treaters?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “No, we live out in the country, back up a long lane. Not many folks find us out there.” Then she looks at me, and I see a tremor of a grin at the corners of her mouth. “We lived in town when the kids were young and I loved to see all the little ones in their costumes.”

It pleases me to know that my question has brought her to this fond memory, one that’s probably bittersweet, to be sure, but one I imagine she’s glad to have.

I tell her to have a nice evening, and when she tells me to do the same, her grin becomes a full smile.

This is a post about teaching, but it begins with this kindness paid to a stranger.

The first person who taught me about teaching was a man named Leo Van Scyoc. It was his job at the University of Arkansas to get the new graduate teaching assistants ready to step to the head of a classroom. As I recall, Leo was the son of a Kansas wheat farmer. He told us a story about the dangers of thinking we knew too much. One summer, home from college, he was working with a threshing crew, and he let another man borrow his pitchfork. When the pitchfork wasn’t returned, Leo said, “To whom did I give my pitchfork?” The derision he suffered was merciless, a highfalutin’ college boy using that kind of language among working men. Who did he think he was? He said he never made that mistake again.

He taught me things about the courtesy of teaching that I still remember:

1.  Five minutes of the break between classes belong to the teacher exiting the room, but no more than that. The other five minutes belong to the teacher coming into the room.

2.  At the end of each class, always erase your chalkboard. (Yes, it was a long time ago, when teachers used chalkboards, which I still do sometimes in my creative writing workshops.) To leave a dirty board for another teacher to erase was rude.

3.  If you do or say something that alienates a student, you should apologize immediately after the class is over for the day. Only once in all the years I’ve taught, did I lose my temper with a student in the classroom. I snapped at that student. I was stubborn and never apologized. I still regret it.

I regret that lack of apology because I know that student closed off any opportunity for learning the rest of the term. If I’d apologized, maybe things could have been different. Maybe that student would have forgiven my flash of temper and been engaged with the class again. I’ll never know because I forgot what Leo taught me. I didn’t apologize, and because I didn’t, I alienated a student. Shame on me.

There’s a lesson in all this. One of the secrets to being an effective teacher is to have good people skills—to be polite and respectful, to be kind, to wear your learning lightly, to be patient, to be forgiving of your students, to remember that each of them, and not you, is the most important person in the room.


  1. Richard Gilbert on November 3, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Great rules of thumb, Lee. Here’s another: have your students put the chairs, desks, tables, whatever back in standard order before they leave. I’m always amazed at the thoughtlessness of teachers who don’t do this. You may be workshopping in small groups, so reconfigure the room, but the next teacher will probably be lecturing.

  2. Lee Martin on November 3, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    That’s another good one, Richard. I learned from my father on the farm that if you opened a gate, you closed it behind you. You left things the way you found them!

  3. Melissa Cronin on November 6, 2014 at 10:59 am

    Lee, I must say, I can’t imagine you snapping at your students. But, I suppose, we are human, right? Though you say, “I forgot what Leo taught me,” you clearly have not – it sounds like you are apologizing to him, here, in this very post. Thank you for letting us in to see, and feel your sense of shame – baring our insides to the world is not easy to do. Thank you, thank you, Lee!

  4. Lee Martin on November 7, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Thanks for the comment, Melissa. It takes a lot to push me to the edge, but it happens sometimes.

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