Friday, September 1, 2017

A Teacher Who Changed My Life

Actually, it's not really changing a person's life-- you can't change what hasn't happened yet. But "A Teacher Who Dramatically Affected the Trajectory of My Life" is too long for a headline.

The teacher was my elementary music teacher, Miss Gause, who affected my life in two huge ways.

First, she walked back to where the boys sat in the corner and droned away in monotone, and she harassed us into trying to match pitch. It was not the cool thing to do, but it got me to actually listen to what was going on. In those days, we took a music aptitude test-- a listening test-- in fourth and fifth grade, and that test either earned us a recommendation to start an instrument, or it didn't. In fourth grade, I flunked the test. In fifth grade I passed. The difference was Miss Gause. It is impossible to imagine what my life would have been like if I had not played an instrument. Most of my important friendships, both marriages, everything I've learned and applied about performance, the vast part of my community involvement-- all of those flowed from playing an instrument and being involved in music. If Miss Gause had ignored us and let us drone on, my life would look completely different today.

For the second moment of impact-- well, as shocking as this may be, when I was ten years old, I could be a bit of an asshat. One day I sat in the back of the room and entertained a few people with my hilarious imitation of Miss Gause's directing technique. For that, I received a paddling (it was the mid sixties). None of that affected me a great deal (other than realizing I would have to be a sneakier asshat better person). Here's what made an impression that I still carry with me today. Miss Gause caught me, yelled at me, and paddled me, wit what I remember as a fair amount of fury.

And then the business was done. She never brought it up again, she never threw it in my face, she never started treating me as if I were a Terrible Child, and she even let me have plum jobs like helping host the sixth grade talent show. This was a mind-blowing revelation-- that you could get in trouble for something, pay a penalty, and then continue on with a blank slate. I've tried never to forget that-- once a student screws up, I try to deal with it and then let it go.

I think of that incident more often these days. How would my infraction be handled by a modern school? My misbehavior would be entered into some digital behavior file, to settle in next to the time I got out of line on the way to water fountain and my sassy mouth in first grade and that time I punched my mom in the bladder when I was a fetus. In many schools, there is no over-done-moving on for students because members of the Cult of Data believe that if we can just track every bit of information about every notable (or even non-notable) action performed by the young human, we can better mold them and sculpt them and modify them into the person we think they should be. So we'll just keep accumulating more and more data in our Eternal Permanent Cyber-record as we travel the cradle-to-career pipeline, until we find ourselves facing a potential employer who says, "Well, the software suggests that based one some misbehavior when you were ten, you might be a bad risk for our corporate operations."

I know, objectively, that more information can be helpful in understnding our students and helping them, but the growth of creepy stalkerish Big Brother programs, complete with software that promises to analyze the student's personality-- well, that feels like something else. Something intrusive and disturbing and ultimately not very helpful to the student at all. Because I still remember the lesson-- deal with it, and then let it go and let the student start fresh

Now, I have one other major point to make about Miss Gause, and I hope she can forgive me for this--

She was not a particularly great teacher.

I think the gig was hard on her, the students kind of a pain in the butt. She did not make a lifelong career out of teaching, and she did not win awards and honors and accolades for her pedagogical genius. I suspect that under many systems of teacher evaluation, she might not have shone as the brightest star.

And yet, she is one of the most influential figures in my life. If circumstances had taken her in a different direction and I had never met her, I would literally be a whole different person.Would either of us have been helped by a high-stakes test-based accountability system or a heavy-duty Data Overlords program? It's hard to believe so.


  1. Truly ordinary teachers can literally change a student's life. That's pretty powerful, even if it doesn't happen all the time.

  2. She doesn't sound like such a bad teacher. She worked hard to get you involved and she didn't label you a "bad kid" because of something you did - those are both pretty positive things. But as you say, very few teachers are what someone would label "great", but you don't have to be to do a good job and make a difference. Not that it's easy or anybody can do it, but if you care, that's the most important thing.

  3. Somewhere three college linebackers, grandsons of the former Miss Gause, are reading your smack on their grandma and deciding you weren't paddled NEARLY enough. :)!

  4. I'm not a great teacher and I don't want to be. Here's why (short answer: it's not about me). I know you don't allow links in your comments but maybe your readers, if interested, would copy and paste.;postID=833149677813536122;onPublishedMenu=allposts;onClosedMenu=allposts;postNum=3;src=postname
    BTW, even if Ms. Gauss was not a great teacher, she had a great impact on you. That's all we should ask of teachers.

  5. Your point about these creepy data collection systems is so important. There is something wrong when a high school student has a big red flag next to their name because in third grade he or she got in a fight. We seem to be trying to return to the days of pre-revolutionary France, as Victor Hugo portrayed so well in Les Miserables...