Who was your favorite school teachers? What made them great?

NOTE FROM AUTHOR: Here is another article I've written from one of those questions my daughter asked me to answer for her and her siblings. At age 70 I'm learning that if I'd just stayed home more and helped the wife raise our four kids I would not have to be working this hard.

Dear Samantha;

I had two teachers that I will always remember.  Your original question was “Who was my favorite High School Teachers?” and I have changed it to Favorite School Teachers because I simply do not remember any of my high school teachers so none of them, to me, were great or worth remembering.

Mrs. Steinhoff

I will start with my second favorite teacher, Mrs. Steinhoff.  I do believe Mrs. Steinhoff was about 65-70 years old when I first met her.  I was in 7th grade and back then they did not require teachers to ever retire if the school board felt they could still teach.  Of course, she could have been younger since in 7th grade I was only 13 and to me then … any one over the age of 25 was old.  My how things change as you age. Mrs. Steinhoff was our English Teacher and when I first met her, I hated her.  Well, I’m not sure if I hated her or simply hated English classes with all the nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions and prepositional phrases – which by the way I still don’t understand.

What made her great?

I think Mrs. Steinhoff realized early on that I did not really hate her … I simply hated the subject she taught.  At least one of the subjects.  She was also our Choir Director for the school … and loving to sing back then … I loved choir and really excelled in it. 

Mrs. Steinhoff took me under her wing and mentored me better than most teachers do.  She made me a deal.  If I would continue to show strength in my singing abilities and my writing and story telling abilities … she would make sure I did not fail English class.  I guess today they would call that “Quid Pro Quo.”  She needed a good male singer in choir and a good story teller in English Class … and I needed passing English grades to make sure I graduated Junior High on time. Because of my writing abilities now … I will never forget Mrs. Steinhoff whom I’m quite sure is no longer of this world and probably leading a choir of angels in Heaven.

Mr. Erskine

I’m not sure if the name is spelled Erskine or Erskin but he was my all-time favorite teacher.  His name was pronounced Erskin .  I only had him one year and that was in the 8th grade.  He started teaching at Willow Springs Elementary School the year I began 8th grade (1964) and was dismissed from teaching there the year I completed 8th grade (1965).  I’m not sure if he was fired or found another job … but tend to think he was probably let go since he (like me) did not necessarily follow the rules.  I think Mr. Erskine at the time was in his mid to late 20’s.  He could not have been much older and looked like today’s geek with partially balding hair and black horn-rimmed glasses.

Mr. Erskine was our History Teacher and one of our PE Coaches.  He mainly coached the Basketball team that I was a part of … but that is not why I took a liking to him since he rarely ever let me play in a real game.  As for PE … he mainly took care of the girl’s gym classes.

What made him great?

First of all, he never played favorites.  He treated all people; white, black, yellow, male or female the same.  He would compliment you when you needed it and scold you when you needed it.  He even got into a fist fight with one of my friends (and lost) near the end of school.  He was as hot-headed as any of us boys were.  If we ended up in a fight, he’d take us to the gym, give us boxing gloves and let us go at it till one gave up.

As for HISTORY … I hated it worse than I hated English.  My thoughts were why did I need to learn about the past since I did not live in the past.   What difference did the American Revolution, the civil war or slavery mean to me since I was not a part of it?  And who in the hell cared about past presidents and what they did or did not do?

But Mr. Erskine’s history classes were so much more than that. 

First of all, he never used a text book in class and rarely gave written tests.  His whole theme about class was “open discussion.”  If you did not participate you would be dismissed … and no one was ever dismissed from his class.  Many who were in other history classes wanted to be a part of his.

How would he teach HISTORY if he did not use a text book?

He used the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and occasionally the Wall Street Journal and multiple magazines.  He would teach current events and always relate them to historical events.  In other words, he would teach us to think rather than to memorize dates and events.

Mr. Erskine was a white teacher in a predominately white school.  He taught us about slavery – not from books that revealed the characteristics about Abraham Lincoln, the civil war and the Slavery Abolishment Act – but rather from the day-to-day movements and marches of the famous Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As the leader of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. traversed the country in his quest for freedom. His involvement in the movement began during the bus boycotts of 1955 and was ended by an assassin’s bullet in 1968 – which was just 3 years after Mr. Erskine and I parted ways.

I learned about Rosa Parks and Harriet Tugman from newspapers and magazines rather than from History books; and this was fully 12 years before the first Black History Month was ever considered.

Mr. Erskine would always use current events from those newspapers and magazines and relate what was happening in 1964-1965 to something that occurred hundreds of years ago in American or World History (back then both classes was combined under one heading … “History”).  He would even get into a little sports history from time to time.

Tests were given on Friday and most of those were oral tests where he would ask questions on what was discussed the previous 4 days in class.  We loved Friday’s because along with the oral tests Mr. Erskine would provide “Home-made Root Beer” that was yellow in color (like real beer) including a nice foam head along with popcorn or caramel corn that he and his wife would make for us. 

Even though school rules said “no eating or drinking in class,” Mr. Erskine would not let a silly rule stop him from keeping his kids informed and learning.

To my knowledge Mr. Erskine was in the principal’s office more than any student was.  The only difference was that they could not spank him like they could us at the time.  But we could sure here the principal and Mr. Erskine having heated discussions.

So, for these reasons Mr. Erskine was my all-time favorite teacher:

  1. He did not play favorites,
  2. He did not necessarily follow rules when he found the rules to be ridiculous, and
  3. He had a unique way of taking the boring of memorizing dates and events and making the event interesting to a group of young pre-teens.

He probably should have ended up as a professor in college … and perhaps that is what happened.  I will never know … but I will never, ever, forget him. So there, you have this week’s questions answered … Who was your favorite school teachers and What made them great?

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