November 2018

Attitude is Everything When It Comes to Teaching

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My favorite teacher, Dr. Sylvan Barnet, died recently. I was glad that I’d finally emailed him and told him of my visit to the New York University’s English department. A friend and I had stopped in to visit our friend Paige who was employed there as a secretary. Paige sat us down and put us to work stuffing envelopes for a mailing, and as we were stuffing and chatting, the head of the English Department emerged from his office. He asked us where we had gone to school and when I said “Tufts,” he asked if I’d ever met Sylvan Barnet there. I spontaneously erupted with, “Oh, he is the best teacher I ever had!” The department head looked a little pained but said nothing. Years later, I learned that he had been trying to lure Dr. Barnet from Tufts to NYU.

He must have been pretty young when I had him for Renaissance Literature. What endeared him to me was his exuberant love of his subject and his desire to share it with us. He made us feel lucky to be living in a world that had such wonderful literature in it.

So I have come to feel that what’s important in teaching is the teacher’s attitude towards his subject and his students. I had a Spanish teacher once who asked his class if we’d read this or that book, and he did not bemoan the fact that none of us had. Instead, he said, “Oh, you lucky people; you’ve got so much good reading ahead of you!”

Contrast that to the teacher who was cautious in his approach to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. He doubted we would be able to understand it and let us know that we probably weren’t smart enough. A Hartford insurance executive, Stevens DID write poetry that is hard to understand. Even so, the teacher could have been a little more positive in his approach.

I remember my elementary teachers pretty well, especially Miss Horton who taught us to identify different kinds of birds and Mr. Billcliff from New Zealand who taught us “Aught times aught is aught.” My 6th grade teacher was memorable for telling us to think for ourselves and not to do things just because everyone else was. I imagine she was conscious that we were about to leap forward into adolescence and would be tempted by smoking and drinking.

I was fond of my teachers, although I was always a little intimidated by them. After all, they were going to pass judgement on me and give me a grade and who knew how that might turn out? I never had a teacher I really disliked except perhaps the Wallace Stevens guy; he was young and arrogant and just seemed too full of himself. 

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