A few days ago I was thinking about teachers that influenced me in my younger years. There was Mrs. Bailey who introduced me and the rest of the second grade class to the Little House Series books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It turned a shy kid into a pseudo celebrity for a week or two and, as it turns out, I am actually related to the author. Then there was Ms. Lee from San Francisco; exotically pretty to a sixth grader. She opened my eyes to the goodness of ethnic diversity. I can still count in Cantonese…”yat, yee, sam, say, mm, lok, chat, baht, gow, sap, yatyat, yatyee and so on”.
The teacher that influenced me the most was Mr. X. Yes, that’s right, I can’t remember his name. It was the mid-seventies and the formalities of public schools were melting away. Most teachers tossed the traditional gender dress and became hip and cool. But not Mr. X, he wore black slacks, white shirt buttoned to the top and a dark unmarked tie. We thought he was a nerd and uncool, even the other teachers acted like he was a misfit. It was a time when educators were embracing friend-relations with students but not Mr. X. He kept a strict line between himself and us students. He was a teacher not a friend and we did what he told us to do; it was simple and straight forward.
Mr. X was a junior high school math teacher and I now believe a damn good one. When I moved onto high school, I was considered an advanced math student without ever trying to become one. I may not recall his name but I do remember that he focused us on one goal for that semester. We had to take the four numbers in our junior high graduating year (without rearranging their order) and make them equal 0, 1, 3, 4 and so on, all the way to 100. He would teach us different mathematical theories and then break us up into small groups and turn us loose on our one goal.
To get an idea of how we were to achieve our goal, here are some examples for the year 2013: 0=2+0+1-3, 1=|((2+0)x1))-3|, 2=2+(0x1x3) and so on up to 100.
Looking back on this some 30-something years later, it was brilliant. He made the class seem like a breeze because we only had to achieve one thing. The defined goal was made important to us because it was centered around the numbers used in the year we were graduating from junior high; it was personal, important and we owned it. Mr. X broke the class of thirty into five groups of six. The smaller groups made students more open to participation and simplified the teacher’s job because he could focus on five entities instead of 30 individuals. We achieved by working together; rehashing the theory which effectively created repetition in learning…we taught each other. Mr. X disguised his theory lessons by calling them hints for achieving the goal. He’d give us the theory and then we’d group up and apply what we learned to the goal and this deeply ingrained the lessons. It also groomed us for higher levels of schooling where lab work follows theoretical teaching. Without realizing it, we were taught some pretty complex math along with important workforce skills such as teamwork and cooperating to achieve goals.
Mr. X was not focused on or concerned about being cool, hip or friendly; he was focused on teaching. His methods were deceptively brilliant. He’s a nondescript hero and perhaps that was by design too.