A conversation on Twitter this morning caused me to remember back to my two master teachers when I was student teaching. Both were exceptional, for completely different reasons. One was a model for me in how to teach physics; the other was a object lesson in how not to be a good person, colleague, teacher, or scientist.
I’ll call him “Pat” (not his real name). Pat was a basketball coach who needed some place to teach, so he was assigned to the science department. I was assigned to student teach two sections of 9th-grade Physical Science with him, as one of the only options in the department, for scheduling reasons. One of the first times I saw Pat’s personality was on Back-to-School-Night, when he informed the parents how “he” was chosen to be a master teacher because of how expert “he” was. Not a word about me, just lies about my placement. OK, whatever.
Pat had trouble with basic science because he was a creationist. (Or maybe he was a creationist because he had trouble with basic science.) I heard him tell his class that the Earth had to be created just the way it is today, because the planet wouldn’t spin right if all the continents were grouped together. This is both geologically and physically wrong and actually pretty hilarious when you think about it. He also got Newton’s Third Law wrong, telling the students that the Earth applies more force on the Moon than vice-versa because the Earth is bigger. I could not let that one pass; I had to correct him on that after class was over. I don’t think he believed me, but he didn’t say much.
In that way, I was lucky. A few weeks later, Pat confronted the journalism teacher over an article critical of him that had run in the student newspaper. (I had been friends with the journalism teacher before ever getting in to teaching; she was a big reason I requested this school in the first place.) Pat explained to the journalism teacher that students were not allowed to criticize teachers in the newspaper. She disputed his interpretation of students’ rights under the First Amendment, in a quiet and professional way. I chimed in on her side, again calmly and professionally. I honestly don’t remember exactly what I said, but I certainly remember the dressing down I got from Pat afterwards: “I do NOT appreciate you contradicting me in front of other teachers.” Wow. Who says that? Who thinks like that?
It is pretty standard for student teachers to begin by conducting their master teachers’ lessons as-is, and then over the semester, take on more responsibility for planning, to the point that they are pretty much independent by the end of the term. Pat would have none of that. I was not allowed to modify any part of any lesson, or even rearrange the sequence of activities. I had to do everything his way, exactly as he did. Fortunately, my university supervisor recognized Pat for what he was. She let me know that she understood the situation I was in, that I just had to get through it, and she helped me to reflect on what I would do differently when I had my own classroom. At the same time, I was having a great experience in my other teacher’s classes, learning what I was supposed to, and being supported fully along the way.
A few years later, after I had been hired at La Costa Canyon and had been teaching for a while, I was talking with the LCC basketball coach at a staff happy hour. Pat’s name got brought up, and our coach knew him, of course. I told him, “Pat must have been a great basketball coach because he was such a lousy teacher.” Our coach replied, “I always thought he must be a great teacher because he was such a lousy basketball coach!”