Tevlin: What makes a great teacher? I decided to ask one

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 6, 2014 - 8:05 PM

I wasn’t always the easiest student to teach.

What I lacked in pure genius, I made up for with a lack of enthusiasm. I quickly learned I could pull off a B grade with my eyes closed, and thus spent a good portion of my pre-college days with my eyes closed.

I wasn’t disruptive, but I never volunteered an answer either. When one teacher asked me why, I pointed out that grades were competitive so it didn’t seem strategically prudent to help my classmates.

The only D grade I ever got was for a class called Bachelor Survival, a kind of home economics for boys. I got the poor grade because I never did the dishes after cooking class. I overcame the fault later in life, and got revenge for the D by finding a spouse that hated to cook and didn’t mind doing the dishes in return.

But every now and then, a teacher was able to inspire me, to pull me out of my stupor and challenge me to think about the world in a whole new way. I was reminded of this because it is Teacher Appreciation Week and I realized that there were a whole lot of people responsible for encouraging me, giving me confidence and creating a hunger for knowledge and a sense of curiosity that has served me well, both in life and career.

John Steinbeck once compared great teachers to great artists, except “their medium is the human mind and spirit.” That might explain why it’s so difficult to describe why a teacher is good. I can tell you which of my teachers stood out, but I can’t really tell you why.

The nuns at St. Stephen’s Catholic School (the two Sister Margarets, Margo and Jean) taught me the “three Rs” as well as the notion that your neighborhood did not necessarily dictate the boundaries of your world. They also taught me to “pipe down back there.”

Stuart Lade at Staples High School was cagey in the way he was able to pull me out in class. I used to sit at the back, using a huge unabridged dictionary as a pillow, until Lade pounced: “I bet Tevlin knows the answer to this one.”

And Ron Perrier at St. Cloud State University was so entertaining that he got me as intrigued with classic Greek tragedies as with pop culture. It was all in the storytelling, and he had me at Agamemnon.

There were many other teachers who motivated and encouraged me, a few who even cajoled me to go to college when I was set on a factory job. It dawned on me I had never thanked them.

So this week I tracked one of them down. Tom Griffin was my seventh- and eighth-grade teacher at St. Stephen’s. Of course he was in class, as a student, as part of a lifelong learning program when I called.

Lesson No. 1: A great teacher is one who also loves to learn.

Griffin was a conscientious objector during the war in Vietnam and assigned to St. Stephen’s as his alternative service, so he wasn’t there by choice. The school was racially mixed and filled with kids of challenging backgrounds, yet Griffin was somehow able to engage every one of them, and push them to their potential.

Griffin went on to teach teachers, among other things, so I asked him what made one great. “I’m not sure I know, either,” Griffin said. “Part of it is an ability to build a relationship with each student and know who they are. I always thought of the idea that I was not teaching a subject, I was teaching a child.”

“From my own experience, I know the good teachers always knew me, knew my name,” Griffin said. “They were able to establish some kind of connection with me.”

He then checked off the names of about a dozen of my classmates, some of whom I’d long forgotten. Forty years later. It’s clear Griffin met his own first criteria for a good teacher.

I can vividly recall Griffin’s attention to each student, regardless of their need for help. When I finished the curriculum early in the year, Griffin began to bring in books for me to read and discuss with him, from “Animal Farm” to his books on psychology.

He credits “a really supportive and complimentary” group of teachers that allowed him that time. He thinks that’s harder now. “Kids speak multiple languages, the classes are large and there are more disparity issues. But some teachers still manage to do it.”

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