My teachers, my memorable teachers

Teachers have an immense responsibility and impact on the lives of their students.

The most dedicated teachers see their profession as a calling, a mission to transform lives.

Such teachers plant seeds as experienced gardeners, knowing the fruits of their labor may not come to fruition for decades. These teachers understand how children learn can be likened to the sewing of an elaborate textured patchwork quilt in which mismatched pieces form the whole.

Memorable teachers are astute detectives, probing to uncover hidden talents, nurturing potentials and providing the skills necessary for lifelong learning. Teaching is not an easy road and not for the faint of heart. Inspired teachers illuminate the room and are never forgotten.

Dr. Randy Pausch is just such a teacher as over two million people have witnessed while viewing his final lecture. This vibrant young professor and father of three preschool children is dying at the young age of 46 from devastating pancreatic cancer and has been given three to six months.

His resume is impressive: a pioneer in virtual reality, computer science professor, Disney Imagineer and synthesizer of the arts and technology.

Despite such achievements, Dr. Pausch presents as modest with a fey humor, which underlies the important life lessons that he teaches. His is probably the most inspirational lecture I have ever seen about why education and effort matters.

”Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” which can be viewed after a simple online search, is not to be forgotten.

My Aunt Annie was a memorable teacher of a very different strip. Her entire career was spent teaching art at Erasmus Hall in Brooklyn, a Mecca for immigrants.

The first woman in her family to attend college during the Great Depression of the 1930s, for which she received a salary of $8 a week, Annie was a no-nonsense person who had high expectations for her students. She was a teacher of the old school that continually made loving corrections and offered advice.

Some students rejected her as intrusive; others understood her teaching methods came straight from heart.

The school day was never long enough for Annie, who came early and left just before the doors closed for the night. She taught well beyond retirement age and continued to volunteer with children until death intervened at the age of 89.

Mrs. Eckerson taught a class called Far East Survey at Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, N.J., for her entire career. She designed her own curriculum, and her classes at the time were the only in Asian studies east of the Rocky Mountains. She loved her subject and passionately exposed us to the riches embedded in the culture, religion and then-contemporary politics of the region.

Mrs. Eckie, as we lovingly called her, had made friends with professors at Yale and other major universities, bringing their knowledge to light.

One of our culminating projects was to write a research paper on a philosopher. I chose Mencius, who followed Confucius. Little information was available at the local library, and I trekked into New York City where I combed the archives.

The entire experience was powerful: knowledge sought out for knowledge’s sake and not a grade.

Always a rebellious and bored student, I was chosen as teacher of the day in that class. After my lesson, Mrs. Eckie took me aside and said, “ If your acting career does not pan out, you may consider teaching.”

Years later I wrote her a thank you note. At the time of my class, Mrs. Eckie was already elderly and had gone through two world wars and the Korean Conflict in which her students had been killed or maimed.

Each year on Memorial Day, she read the names of those that died, crying her eyes out. Just remembering her love brings tears to my eyes, these many years later.

Mrs. Eckie was a teacher that saw promise in her individual students and had a bottomless heart.

The memory of a professor I studied under at Columbia University Teachers College grows with each passing year, now over 20. Professor Georges Z. Bereday succumbed to a brain tumor in 1984.

A strong dynamic teacher, one would assume he would live and work to a ripe old age. Ah, fate!

This man survived World War II as a member of the Polish Underground and came to the United States where he completed his doctorate in sociology at Harvard University.

It was the way Professor Bereday structured his class that has remained with me. The criteria for grading were posted, and the student chose how much effort they wanted to put into the class.

Professor Bereday knew he could only present the subject matter; it was the student that had the responsibility for learning.

One would hope by the time a student entered college and had been nurtured by excellent teachers such as my Aunt Annie and Mrs. Eckie that they would be independent learners. Teaching, like learning is developmental.

The qualities that make for an excellent preschool teacher would not be appropriate at the college level.

Sadly, teaching remains a profession that is still considered of low status by many. The more encouragement and autonomy given to prospective teachers, the higher the quality of entrants will become.

The teachers I described were strong individuals, unlikely to give in or break down when frustrated. Such models are exemplary, and each and every child deserves to have at least one in their life.