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Saturday, May 03, 2008

Those Who CAN...Teach!

by Kevin Burns

I was lucky enough to have been enrolled in one of the
best teaching programs in the world. It isn`t
world famous however. I studied from some of the great

In grade eight I was lucky to be put into Beth Bell`s
Social Studies class. My life would never be the same.
This dynamo of a teacher with the energy of a marathon
runner would stand up on the desks as she mimicked crossing
the Delaware River as George Washington. I have never
forgotton some of her lessons.

Mr. Wilson in Grade 4 taught us just once a week unfortunately,
but I always enjoyed his self deprecating humour. I paid
more attention in class as a result. He would often lament
loudly in class (to many chuckles), "My mother always said
I should have been a church minister, why didn`t I listen?"
--whenever we had given him a hard time. We always looked
forward to his classes.

Mr. Koch in grade 8 science combed his hair forward it was
rumoured, to cover a bald spot. I think in retrospect, he just
liked that style. Regardless he was one of the great ones.
He always looked at life and learning in a humourous light
hearted way, and I never saw him angry. Although I wasn`t
always interested in the content of his lessons, I always
enjoyed them, because of his humour and love of teaching.
I even stuck it out when we had to cut up pickled baby pigs!

Moreover, there were so many honorable mentions in my life.
The Mr. Christie`s who taught with warmth, empathy and even
brought music into the classroom in the form of his guitar and
singing. I still remember you clearly Mr. Christie and others
like you, who while not making my top five list, were very good
teachers nonetheless. You taught well, were well prepared and
obviously enjoyed teaching.

Another great was Mr. Leach. I didn`t like him at first thinking
he was too stodgy and stern. But that changed once I got to
know him. He too was humorous and able to recognize that not all
students were alike. They might need a special project to work on
individually. He kept his eyes open for students like that.
Moreover he would play with our growing rebelliousness with humour.
We were getting to that infamous junior high school age, but
Leach could handle anything we could throw at him.

Mr Bohmert had been a young Nazi as a boy. All the boys had in
Germany at that time. Had you not, that could well have spelt
trouble for your family in the Germany of that age. Yet he
was one of the most liberal thinking teachers I know. He
brought a passion to his teaching that few have equalled.
Studying with him in grade 12 gave one a preview of coming
attractions in university. He had a love of his topic:
Western Civilization, and it was evident to all. He kept
a good balance between being teacher centred and student
centred--often asking us what we thought, and promoting
discussion. His lectures were great!

Catherine was at one time a depressed and overweight
woman. You would never have known. Her acting lessons at
UBC were superb. She was a master at reading the atmosphere
of the class and adjusting to that. She was passionate about
her work and there was no doubt as to what we were there to do
or why. There was nothing more important in the whole world,
than what was taking place in her class at that moment.

How many times have you ever felt that with a teacher?

Do your students ever feel that in your classes?

Humbling questions I know, but important ones for us career educators.

"Where are you?" Catherine would ask. "Are you in the moment?"

As teachers if we don`t treat each moment as the most important
event in history, how can our students?

If we are not enthusiastic about our classes, how can they be?

Perhaps the greatest teacher I ever had was Dr. Peter Loeffler
of UBC. I had him for Theatre History and the topic wasn`t
that interesting to me. Yet because of Dr. Loeffler it made it
so. Loeffler was all about passion. Passion for the theatre,
passion for art, passion in love. He embodied passion.
He wanted all of us to really be what we were working on. He eloquently spoke of Goethe. He loved Goethe.
I wanted to love Goethe.

My project for his class was a stand up comedy act about
Oedipus. Sounds crazy! And it was!

Dr, Loeffler did not simply want me to perform stand up comedy,
but he wanted me to engage my artistic side as much as possible.
He really wanted to bring out the talents of the students. Very
difficult to do in a class of over 100, but he managed to.

I had (mistakenly) mentioned that I could not draw and wasn`t good
at art; that only spurred him on. "You must make a poster then,
you don`t have to draw everything," he said in his Dutch accented
English. So my comedy performance would also have my poster which
I cobbled together with my drawing, printing and pictures from
magazines. It actually looked pretty nice. Stand up comedy followed
with jokes about sleeping with my mother and a blues number
lamenting the same unfortunate family relations, finished my act.

I think Loeffler taught me the value of how teachers have the magic
to bring out the best in our students. To help students realize
who they really are, where their talents lie and dig them out
from the hole they are buried in. Students are diamonds in the

Loeffler too was magical. He believed in the magic of things.
Like a six year old child, he valued the magic inherent in events.
He valued the magic of the moment. His subject matter was theatre and
he bewailed the loss of magic in the Canadian theatre. His one
frequent example was the hush that befalls the audience just
as the lights of the theatre dim and the curtain begins to open.
That anticipation just before the set is revealed on stage.
In the Canadian theatre at that time (twenty years ago or more now)
the set was frequently there for all to see as the audience entered
the theatre. Magic of the kind Loeffler referred to was gone.

I think as English teachers in Japan, few of us realize that
for our Japanese students from Niigata and Nagano, we are walking
magicians. We are just like the people they have seen in
movies all their lives. To them we are magical. That
man or woman they saw on screen is now standing before them.
Tough to believe I know. But to many of our students, we
look just like Kiefer Sutherland, Mr. Bean, Paul McCartney,
or God forbid, Margareth Thatcher!!!! Ouch!!!

He looks just like that actor in what movie was it? The Matrix?

Use it! Use whatever magic you have. Engage your students!
If you look like an actor to them, play that up.
Play up the wonder and the mystery. And for God`s sake make
your English class a magical and wondrous event.

To the teachers who say, I am not an entertainer.
I am a teacher. I will resist slapping you silly.

You are an entertainer
& a teacher. You must entertain. You must keep your
students engaged. If not, you cannot hope to teach.

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