Recently I was asked to relate my favorite education quote. Admittedly, I had a hard time choosing. Education is nuanced. Thousands of teaching and learning quotes are relevant and memorable.
After re-reading several of my favorite education quotes, I chose this one as my favorite: “Education is light, lack of it darkness.” (Russian proverb.) Teachers, parents, students, and tutors will all find relevance in this quote. Telling you about my favorite teacher will help explain why I think this quote is so appropriate.
My favorite teacher was a middle school teacher named Mr. Z; that’s what we all called him anyway. He was an English teacher (now retired) and sponsor of the school’s Chess team. I never had him for English; instead, I was in his homeroom and Chess club. I didn’t have to have him for English to know he was excellent at teaching that, too.
I’d known Mr. Z. since my family moved to the city where I grew up. He was the sponsor of the city’s Chess club. We learned about meeting days and times in the newspaper. My brother, dad, and I decided to go since we all played Chess. Since I’d been learning Chess from Mr. Z. since I was in about 4th or 5th grade, I looked forward to moving on to middle school and playing for him on the school’s Chess team.
Once I got to middle school, I began to see Mr. Z. as more than a club sponsor. He coordinated after school Chess club meetings, club tournaments, chaperones and travel arrangements for weekend Chess tournaments, along with his regular duties as an English teacher. I also saw that just about everyone loved Mr. Z!
One thing was certain about him, he loved teaching both Chess and English. After Chess tournaments, he sat down with each of us and used our notation sheets to review our games with us. He was very patient with us, asking us to look several moves ahead and predict our opponent’s counter moves. He didn’t jump in and tell us what was wrong or moves he saw. Instead, he asked us questions and reminded of his three or four basic rules for maintaining a strong position, and made us figure a solution. Most importantly, he always gave us positive feedback. Thinking back now I can’t remember a single time when he reprimanded us.
Mr. Z.’s teaching style exemplified “light”. Most of my middle school teachers had no problem yelling or reprimanding students, making their classrooms tense. His classroom felt light because students were comfortable and laughter was an everyday occurrence. I always looked forward to the beginning of the next school day when I’d be back in Mr. Z.’s homeroom going over weekend games or playing Chess with classmates.
His enthusiasm and energy for teaching middle school students calmed my fears about moving to high school, too. When I was growing up, middle school was 7th and 8th grade only. Sixth grade was in elementary school, 9th was in high school (there were no “freshmen learning centers”). I’d been nervous about moving on to 7th grade due to the close-knit family feeling in the small elementary schools I had attended. I was reluctant to leave. But, after being in Mr. Z.’s homeroom and in Chess club, I decided that there HAD to be at least some teachers like him in a school that big.
Looking back, I know that having Mr. Z. as a teacher changed my life. Since middle school, during tough times I’ve often thought about him and the successes he helped me experience. They’ve given me a well of strength to draw from when I started to think I wouldn’t make it through. Sometimes I have thought about specific things that he told us like, “You’ve got to think a few moves ahead of your opponent. If you don’t, then you’re behind and you’re playing defense.” He also used to say, “It’s not always about taking more of your opponent’s pieces. But, you always have to maintain a strong position.” Those words of wisdom apply to many situations in adult life.
Like the Russian proverb I quoted in the second paragraph, Mr. Z. taught us skills that helped us “see the light”. Those skills we learned from him – along with the experiences we had – kept a lot of us out of trouble. We had to maintain a certain GPA to play on the school’s Chess team. None of us wanted to be left behind. I think that’s because we understood that if we weren’t allowed on the Chess team, life at school would be much darker.
Today, whether I’m tutoring one student or teaching a classroom of 30 students, I remind myself that the way I teach my students will effect them beyond the classroom. I can choose whether my students think of my class/ teaching style as “light” or “dark”. I know that some students love my class for various reasons and I understand that, to them, I may be the only “light” they have in their lives. If they look forward to working with me and I’m in a bad mood that shows in my teaching style, the ripples may stretch further than I realize!
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