Janet Stevens column: Best teachers demand student really try

Janet Stevens /

Published May 16, 2014 at 12:01AM

Last week was PTA Teacher Appreciation Week, a creation of the national PTA organization. It’s an annual affair, highlighted by the National Education Association’s National Teacher Day, which was Tuesday, May 6. Rightly or wrongly, many teachers feel a bit besieged these days, so a timeout to celebrate what they do is particularly valuable.

Many adults can, I suspect, tell you the names of every teacher they had in secondary school. They can also tell you whether they liked an individual teacher or not. That said, if you dig much deeper you’re likely to find that most of us had one or two, perhaps three, teachers who really stood out, who for one reason or another had an outsized impact on our educations.

For my colleague Richard Coe, that teacher was Van Young, who taught high school English. Mr. Young, Coe says, played music — rock music — in his class, in part to set the mood for the learning that was to come.

More than that, Mr. Young challenged Coe and his classmates, particularly when it came to selecting spare-time reading material, telling Coe to set aside his “junk” reading and concentrate instead on “Siddhartha,” by Hermann Hesse.

Emily Oller, a sports reporter here, has this to say about her standout teacher:

“Summit High’s Doug McDonald was my English teacher my sophomore, junior and senior years along with one of my softball coaches. He was always encouraging to all of the students, but knew how to push us to get the best results. During my senior year, he was my Writing 121 (college writing course) teacher, and that is where I first fell in love with writing. I owe my writing career to him.”

Jack Ensworth of Bend is one of those special ones. I was never lucky enough to be in his fifth-grade class, but those who were not only remember him but keep in touch now more than 50 years later. He was innovative — sheep in the quad that forms the center of Kenwood School were only one indication of that — and entertaining and still managed to persuade kids to do their best. If anyone could prove that school truly was fun, he was that man.

Bulletin Editor John Costa also had a favorite teacher, who he says, demanded that his students do their best:

“My favorite secondary school teacher was Father William McDermott, who taught second-year Latin at the Catholic prep school I attended. He was diminutive and was known as either Wee Willie or Little Caesar, since he taught the Gallic Wars. At my 25-year reunion, he was surrounded by a crowd, but as I walked up he said, ‘Now there is my Latin student.’ Great guy.”

Another reporter, David Jasper in our features department, recalls a woman who dealt with his willingness to be the class clown:

“My 12th-grade English teacher at Miami Killian Senior High (in Florida), Mrs. Pomerantz, had a ‘No Bozos’ sign hanging in her classroom. I was nothing if not a 17-year-old Bozo, and she knew it. Before long she moved my seat from the back of the classroom to directly in front of her desk, where I began to thrive (and occasionally make her laugh). On my 18th birthday, she had my classmates form two rows, a spanking gauntlet I had to get through before she’d allow anyone to leave. At some point, I had to stand before the class to give a presentation, immediately coming down with a dire case of the giggles. Mrs. Pomerantz did not let me off the hook.”

As for me, Miss Grace Mary Linn stands out among several teachers I count as favorites. She taught junior high school Latin and English, and like every one of the teachers my co-workers wrote about, she demanded that I give her my best effort.

For some kids, at least it’s that one characteristic, the demand that students really try, that makes a teacher stand out. No doubt most school districts have teachers who do just that.

Teaching may never have been an “easy” profession, but surely it’s more difficult today than it was 50 years ago. Families are more fractured, classrooms more diverse and the demand for good results at least noisier than it has ever been. One week a year to celebrate those who continue to choose to teach may not be enough.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-383-0821, jstevens@bendbulletin.com