The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Ralph Couey

February 12, 2011

RALPH COUEY | Reaching for greatness

— Our middle daughter, Crystal, is approaching a milestone. In May, she’ll graduate from the University of Colorado-Denver with her teaching degree.

She has always had a strong interest in math. She was once an electrical engineering major until she hit a brick wall called “differential equations.” It’s always bothered her that females are vastly underrepresented, not just in the professional field of mathematics, but through their participation in this subject in middle, junior, and senior high school classrooms. Her mission is to make math cool for girls, convincing them that there’s no such thing as a “nontraditional field.”

A month or so ago, she sent out an e-mail to a lot of people.

In it, she asked what they thought the characteristics were of a great teacher. Note that she didn’t ask about an “average” teacher; or even a “good” teacher.

She wants to be a “great” teacher. Mediocrity has, in many ways, become the standard, and not just in education. Do just enough to blend in; don’t stick your neck out. For a teacher, especially, to adopt excellence as a standard is the kind of thing that changes lives in the classroom.

She got a lot of good answers back. Several advised her to get to know her students as individuals, identifying their individual learning styles and tailoring her delivery thus. She was advised to be humble, personable, even-tempered, and communicative; to not be afraid to show humor and have fun.

A great teacher is accountable to students. Don’t lose papers; keep promises and deadlines. If you keep yours, they’ll be more likely to keep theirs. But be flexible enough to realize that if they’re not “getting it” then taking the time to ensure comprehension is far more important than adhering to a rigid schedule. If a student needs help, be available.

And there’s nothing worse than a student whose been “blown off” by that teacher. Going that extra mile can save a life.

She got great advice from a lot of people in a position to offer it. She also asked me that question.

This was my reply:

Dear Crystal,

Before I answer your question, I want you to know how proud I am of you, not only for the magnitude of what you’re about to accomplish, but also because you don’t want to be just a “good teacher,” but a “great” one.  All of us in our education “careers” have had a lot of instructors, but few real teachers.

A child in many ways can be likened to a flower. In order to transition from a bud to a bloom, the plant requires sunshine, good soil, water, and the right environment.

An instructor is only a custodian. A teacher, on the other hand, is a gardener who works hard to find the unbloomed bud within each individual student. A great teacher doesn’t just lecture; they push students, through encourgement and challenge, to achieve things they never thought they could; in other words, to bloom.

The student thus sees the light of possibility in their future.

Knowledge has been described as a fire; something that burns brightly within. I suppose you could describe a great teacher as a sort of arsonist of the mind, lighting that flame of knowledge.

A great teacher cares. To them, it’s never just a job. Each day is a priceless opportunity to shape minds and mold lives. They understand the preciousness of each human life. They work to excite their students by connecting the work in the classroom with the real world outside.

Great teachers are role models; examples to follow and emulate. The standard they set in the classroom can be the standard a student adopts for themselves. In so doing, that teacher becomes a touchstone; a keystone; a stepping stone.

Mediocre teachers are forgotten at the end of the semester.

Good teachers will be remembered until graduation.

But great teachers will never be forgotten.

Hang on to your passion. It will create great days for you, and help carry you through the dark ones. And never forget that you don’t really work for the Principal, or the Superintendent, or even the School Board.

You will always work for your students.

Did I tell you how proud I am of you? Well, I am.

Love, Dad.

Ralph Couey is a freelance writer living in Somerset.


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Tackling the area's drug problem.
Controlling folks moving into city housing.
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