What Makes a Great English Teacher?
Written by
The Agent
August 2010
Written by
The Agent
August 2010
Erin Hosier reconnects with an early influence... Recently my favorite teacher from high school, who is now retired, contacted me via Facebook. I was shocked that she remembered me. I don't think I ever got higher than a C (maybe a B-) in either of her English Lit or Composition classes. She was really, really tough, but in the best way: challenging, dynamic, rebellious, a little kooky. And this was in a very conservative public school, the kind of place where the commencement ceremony was followed by a prayer. Anyway, over the years I've often thought about how much Ms. Carol Janes influenced me and my career choices. I'm willing to bet there's a teacher in your past who did the same for you, or perhaps you're a teacher yourself. A few questions for her below... Ms. Janes, I'm so moved that you remember who I am. I certainly remember you, but I was definitely not one of your better students in terms of grades. I loved your classes and genuinely tried, but I barely got into college. What's up with that? Of course I would remember you. I had millions of students (it seems like) but only a handful of people I considered to be exceptional. By exceptional I mean those who had this thirst for learning and ideas...real stuff, not some memorized facts. And I have always admired creativity and imagination. How did you know you wanted to become a teacher? It seems like a really tough job. No one taught me how to teach. I have always been a reader so it just seemed natural to major in English. And I wanted to pass my love of ideas found in literature on to others. I have a gift for communication. I really believe that it is a gift and you can't teach it to anyone. I have had many teachers in my life and most of them were awful. Some love their subject matter but just can't communicate, other's are in it for a job, some like the summer vacation. I did have two college teachers who were outstanding - they taught history and made it come alive. They were passionate, and both very hard graders. I worked my butt off for a B and was thrilled with it...meant more to me than the A's that came too easily to have value. How did you end up at BHS? I didn't really choose Berkshire. When I graduated from college suddenly the education field was overcrowded as it was a draft deferment, so I applied and was rejected from a number of places. I applied at a nearby school and had a good interview but they hired someone else. That superintendent knew that Berkshire had an opening though and he recommended me, but I was not enthusiastic. Ny then I was resigned to working at something else. But I went in and they just said "do you want the job"? and gave me the text. I was stunned. I also knew, it was meant to be. Forgive me, but you weren't like any of the others. You treated us like the young adults we were and really challenged us intellectually, even spiritually. How did you get away with it? I honestly do not know how I was accepted in our district. I guess that in spite of my kookiness parents knew I got the job done. I was criticised for dumb stuff like talking about God when I had to teach Puritan Literature. It used to drive me crazy. I've had parents tell me that whatever I said provoked a discussion in their household. But these days, I wouldn't be allowed to teach anymore. Not and be myself. Now you must not hurt anyone's feelings or give low grades. After you were gone I taught some 9th grade English in addition to the Jr's. Then I switched to World History. I loved it and even taught 7th grade history. We did lots of creative things, many projects. I confiscated a dart gun in my 9th grade English class and when we would do something boring like identify adjectives in a sentence I would pull out the gun and threaten anyone who would make a mistake. I shot at their legs of course. I would flick anyone in the ear who was not paying attention. Not hard, just to make a point. And of course I would always tease, not to hurt feelings but to laugh. You can't do that anymore...there's no more fun. Any books you were banned from teaching over the years? Only book I could not teach was Catcher in the Rye which just happens to be one of my favorite books and perfect for 16 yr. olds. So I put it on my reading list and would give extra credit for it. Are kids different today? What have you seen since I left those hallowed halls in 1993? This last part is harder for me to answer. Kids used to be different and I think it has everything to do with their parents. I didn't have many problems because I was allowed to be the authority in my classroom. What I said was what was done. My rules were respected. Students were responsible or paid the penalty. That has all changed over the years. Parents want all the responsibility on the teachers now. And yet kids don't do homework. I would routinely be called to the office, the principal wanted to know why I had so many D's and F's in my history classes. It was because kids would NOT do homework, no matter how little it might be. We got to the point where we went to a percentage grading scale and you could not give a grade below 50%. When I left, it was stated in Board policy that an acceptable grade for our students was a "C"....that meant the teacher was not doing a very good job if grades were below that. So you can imagine the way most teachers deal with that. Give them what they want. With the sort of technology we have today there is so much cheating. And school administrators don't have the balls to demand that kids not have cell phones in class, etc, etc. I used to like young people a lot more than I do currently, although it's not their fault. It started with my generation of parents but it's gotten worse with this current crop, and the idea that no one should ever fail. It's all about self esteem and no one's feelings ever being hurt. Young people are so ill prepared for the adult world. Word. I know that's right. I also wanted to mention that you were the first "Ms." I ever knew, and that really made an impact on me. It was refreshing to have a teacher who wasn't a "Miss" or a "Mrs" you know? Not that anyone ever made a big deal about it, but I appreciated your positivity about it. You know, I never had the desire to marry and I never particularly wanted children. I've always felt that my students WERE my children but in the best possible way. I did not have to live with them 24 hrs a day but I could still influence their lives and have fun. Well, ultimately everything works out the way it should. I really don't have regrets. Although I was kind of bitter when I quit and still am whenever people think teachers have an easy job or make too much money or whatever...I get so riled up!!!! But if I had it to do over again I can't think what else I would want to do more. I love working with animals now, but as a volunteer. When you're being paid for something it's different. SWers, who was your favorite teacher and why?

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  • Barbara Becker

    Dr. Montella at Ramapo High School in NJ! I wrote a blog piece about finding her this summer. She's not on FB, so it was no easy task :)


  • Susan Katz Miller

    I will never forget Ms. Annette Busse of Weston High School. She taught creative writing (a subject long gone from most high schools now), covered our papers with red ink (most public school teachers don't seem to have time to actually edit student papers anymore), and inspired me to really work at writing. I often think of the paper I wrote for her on vision and blindness imagery in "King Lear." She was so unlike anyone in our conservative and preppy little town--close-cropped grey hair, baggy tops, no family in evidence. I am sad she did not live into the facebook era. I miss her.

  • Edan Lepucki

    My high school English teacher officiated my wedding.

  • Lee Ee Leen

    I had some great teachers and professors- the most inspirational ones were those who taught for short periods of time, like a fortnight

  • Tabitha Blankenbiller

    This was an entertaining and insightful exchange - thank you for sharing! My favorite high school English teacher is still one of my best friends. She was a bridesmaid in my wedding!! We clicked with our love of writing and theater. She was everything I wanted to be when I grew up: well-read, cultured, authoritative but kind, dramatic, beautiful. I'm still working on getting there, but she remains a constant inspiration and source of encouragement.

    I agree that the comments on current students was terrifying, but I can definitely see it to be true as well. Hopefully more great teachers speak out and can change some of the administration's policies. It's for our entire world's own good, after all.

  • Rachel Thebault

    In 10th or 11th grade I had a teacher, Dr. Piazza, who taught "Expository Writing". He, more than anyone, taught me how to write well in all manners of communication, not just creative writing or term paper writing. It has been one of my most useful skills throughout my life, and is something I think people often don't give enough attention. I wish I could go back and thank him!

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I had an English teacher in San Antonio named Carlotta Cardenas De Dwyer. That should tell you something about her. She couldn't have been more than four feet tall, she had a Ph.D., and she was tough as nails. I learned so much from her and from her standard of excellence, and her passion for literature was so total and so gripping that even the most difficult-to-reach students were inspired. Thanks for doing this, and thank you, Ms. Janes, for doing what you do. I have two little boys and I only hope their teachers think as highly of them as you did of your students.

  • Deborah Siegel Writing

    Erin, this just made my DAY. My high school English teacher, Ms. Medwin, came to a reading of mine and I was so moved I nearly cried. I love that Ms. Janes reconnected through Facebook - how very...modern. I love what she has to say about kids-then and kids-today. Makes me a little freaked, though, for the day when my babies hit school - though maybe the pendulum will swing back the other way by then in some small way. I can only hope.

  • Amy Jo Garner

    Thanks for sharing this! Although I was an English major in college, I knew I never wanted to teach in public schools. I don't think I would have lasted very long! I do, however, loving teaching in a career college. English may not be a favorite class, but at least the students are motivated to be in school, do the work, and keep their GPAs up so they don't get kicked out.

    My favorite teacher was a math teacher, Ms. Chakwoski. I didn't like math very much, but she managed to keep the class lively. She also was an assistant coach for the girl's track team, so I got to see her in a non-classroom environment. I think what really made her stand out was that she genuinely cared about the students and was accessible if we needed help with our work.

  • Kevin Camp

    An American History teacher I had my freshman year in high school was my favorite. I have favorite professors too, but I think the request pertains to K-12 only. At any rate, he knew all of these fascinating little bon mots which underscored whichever time period we were currently discussing. His personality was very quirky and he would tell horrible jokes from time to time that one laughed at anyway.