Tuesday, May 8, 2007


I am not breaking any new ground here by saying teaching is a tough, thankless, low-paying job. Their value is huge, their compensation minimal. Yet, who has a greater long-term impact on young people- a caring teacher or a celebrity? Today I am going to share some thoughts on teachers who had a great influence on me.

I was fortunate. As a kid I went to private schools. My dad was a teacher, a good one, and the headmaster of the schools I attended. From Montessori through my senior year of high school we went to school together. My dad was my 8th grade algebra teacher and my physics teacher my junior year. I never got higher than an A-, and no, it wasn’t weird that he was my teacher or headmaster; I had no other frame of reference.

My 4th and 5th grade teachers, Mrs. And Mr. Hackworth were (and still are) married to each other. Mrs. Hackworth taught us poetry. Each weekend we would have to memorize I poem of her selection and be prepared to recite it aloud on Monday. It was hell, but I learned a lot. Honestly, I don’t remember much of what Mr. Hackworth taught us. I mostly remember him. He had a reputation as a tough, mean teacher, but to me he was just a good man. I really enjoyed 5th grade, despite not remembering much of what I learned.

As a freshman in high school I had a writing teacher called Bernice Hopkins. She also ran the school newspaper and encouraged me to write for it. My first assignment was to interview the school’s new soccer coach. I had no idea what to do so I basically transcribed my Q &A with him and that ran on the front page of the paper. My lack of style became my style. It was just what I did with the post about my friend Stephan and Veoh last week.

More important to my writing development was Dan Frank, a teacher I had as a sophomore in high school. He showed me structure- an introduction, a middle and a conclusion. So simple now, yet I guess I had to learn it some time. Today, Dan is the headmaster of the Francis Parker school here in Chicago, one of the top private schools in the city.

It’s often hard to find good teachers in college. So many academics are researchers first, teachers second. Despite this I had a handful. Alfred Appel I mentioned yesterday. (As I type this I can hear him in my ear lecturing about Lolita- he translated it and was a student of Nabokov’s). I was a teaching assistant for Irv Rein. He is a communications professor who studied a wide variety of topics ranging from celebrity to the rhetoric of supermarkets. In many ways he taught me how to be a college teacher. Like Appel, Irv showed me the performative nature of being a teacher. Both men could command your attention even when delivering dry material.

Anyone who has taken an Art History course at Northwestern knows about Hollis Clayson. She was and still is the best art history teacher I ever had. When I was a junior she was denied tenure and left school. Students were outraged, but years later she returned to N.U. I used to take my lunch and sit in the darkened lecture hall as she showed slides and spoke. She had a tremendous vocabulary, but then could turn on a dime and describe a Goya painting as “icky.”

Graduate school was full of great professors. David Tracy, my thesis advisor, had to cancel two meetings with me. One time he had to go to Rome to meet with the Pope. The other time he went to the White House to meet with the president. I was happy just to be in David’s presence. The funny thing is every time we met he wanted to talk about movies, while I wanted to talk about my thesis.

As a teacher I hope I live up to the standards set by the men and women mentioned above.



Bobby Revell said...

I think you already are living up to those standards. Sounds to me like you have exceeded them. Enough can never be said about a good teacher and the impact they have on our lives. Teaching is probably the most important job there is. I had some great teachers and without their influence I don't know where I would be right now. Great post!!!

PeterH said...

Thank you for the compliment. As I said yesterday, I will let it be up to the students to say what sort of teacher I am.

All I know is that I take what I learned about teaching from the good ones and try to pass it on. It has very little to do with filmmaking101.


Wonder Woman said...

I will never forget a group of teachers who changed my life and truly were a huge part of molding me into what I have become today. They were junior high school teachers and 4 very intelligent people. They made up the staff of the Accelerated Learning Program for my district. They were a group of dedicated teachers, devoted to the education and enlightenment of a select group of advanced adolescents.

They all worked hard to make school enjoyable, different and challenging for every student in each of their classes. In fact, teaching was their life. Not one of the four teachers was married, and they dedicated many nights, weekends, and holidays to us- their kids.

We all knew even back then how much they did, but it took some growing up to realize how much they really contributed to the person I became. I will forever remember them with fondness, love and gratitude. Their gifts are priceless.

From your writing I can tell that you are one of the greats. You will not be forgotten, but you will be remembered for the priceless gifts you have given and will give to your students.