THE POWER OF GOOD TEACHERS by mia hinkle [June 2022]
I have been out of high school for 50 years this month. My favorite high school classes can easily be summed up in two names: Jan Baker and Jim Waletski.
Jan Baker taught English and Jim Waletski taught History. My interest in history and writing has buoyed me through these last five decades largely due to the impact of these two individuals. They were both more than teachers to their students; they were influences. I didn’t have much confidence in my scholastic abilities until I slid into their classes in the early 70s. But happily, that changed. Seeds were watered in their care.
Jan Baker was like no other person I had ever known. She was smart and sassy, plus I think she really liked working with teenagers! In her English class, students were allowed to choose a topic of study —- anything that interested them (I chose Woodstock). Then we were required to read about it, write about it, and present it to the class. Reading, writing, and speech all wrapped up into one class. GENIUS! Reading, writing, and speaking are life skills that all people need regardless of what line of work they end up pursuing.
As an aside, thirty years later when my sons were in elementary school, they came up with the brilliant idea to be pet owners. More specifically they wanted to own Green Chinese Water Dragons. Wait! What?! But instead of simply saying NO WAY, I asked them to go to the library and read books about lizards, then write a report on how to feed them and maintain their environment, then create a poster showing the steps, then rehearse a speech, and finally present it to three of our neighbors. Turns out I was wrong about thinking that my kids would not jump through these hoops! They eagerly engaged in the process, learned about lizards, and became the proud owners of reptiles the length of my forearm who slept on rocks under a heat lamp and gobbled up live crickets. In my house. Yikes!
Jan Baker was an old soul AND a kid at heart. I loved her assignments and did well in English because I felt heard in her class. It didn’t matter if you were a brainiac, a hippie, a jock, a drama nerd, a musician, marginalized, or popular, Ms. Baker always made you feel like you were the only student in the class and she was hanging on your every word.
When I was a senior, she directed West Side Story, quite an undertaking for a small-town high school drama and music department. I was the photographer and all my friends were in the play, in the tech crew, or in the orchestra. What an awesome experience! Ms. Baker brought to light confidence in her students, in my case, for the first time in my scholastic history. I am sure that many of my classmates would agree we owe Ms. Baker a great debt of gratitude for the diverse paths we took as we ventured out into the great big world out there!
Jim Waletski was our history teacher. Instead of rehashing dry facts about dusty old events featuring people with whom we had nothing in common, he taught us how to be curious about our past and how it affects our place in the world today. He taught us to question sources and authors and points of view, not just blindly swallow the versions of the stories we learned in grade school, versions which always seemed to show the development of America in the warm comfortable glow of nationalism, always on the right side, always the hero. Instead of just repeating the dry old stories we had grown up with, Mr. Waletski offered differing perspectives and encouraged us to consider an issue from varying pockets of our population. Long before I had ever heard of Howard Zinn, Mr. Waletski gave us permission to be inquisitive and to consider the perspectives of others. Howard Zinn wrote the well-researched book, A People’s History of the United States, which tells America’s story from the point of view of—and in the words of—America’s women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, the working poor, and immigrant laborers. Zinn demonstrates that many of our country’s greatest battles were carried out at the grassroots level, many times against bloody resistance. He asserts that the elite minority of people in power were not always right, they just held all the cards. So, to honor history in its entirety, we must learn more than just easy reruns. We need to consider the larger scope and the roots of an event, reflecting how it still might affect our beliefs and actions and those of our fellow citizens. All textbooks contain omissions and misrepresentations of certain events. What we learned from Mr. Waletski was to consider many sides of an issue before drawing conclusions. Especially if our conclusions become our guiding light.
It is sad, but teachers have come under increased scrutiny as of late. Educators used to be the final authority in the classroom, but today they are sometimes criticized, disrespected, and in fact berated, by kids and their parents and especially some politicians. Communities and lawmakers are requiring more of teachers while providing fewer resources, while not trusting them to choose their own curriculum or relate to their own students. It must be hard to receive those nasty grams in your inbox when you’re just trying to teach children and serve your community in perhaps the most important way there is. They’re sure not in it for the money.
I thank God this wasn’t the case when I was growing up, because quality teachers like Ms. Baker and Mr. Waletski may have sought occupations elsewhere and we may never have had the benefit of knowing these two amazing gems.