Friday, August 16, 2013

The Teachers Who Inspire Us

Houston Academy is an institution that prides itself on its fine teaching, and certainly this pride is well deserved.  As I told the teachers at our opening faculty meeting, I believe that teaching is the most noble of professions.  For relatively little pay, they work every day to make this world a better place. Moreover,  for every CEO, star athlete, congressman, musician, doctor, or lawyer out there, there were one or more great teachers who were instrumental in making them who they are.

The older I get and the more experience in education I have, the more I appreciate the fine education I received at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and in my graduate studies. A great number of educators influenced me profoundly. My high school football and wrestling coach, Bob Cloy, taught me tenacity, resiliency, AND that a great coach SHOULD also be a great classroom teacher. My high school French teacher, Susan Kokoszka, taught me to revel in a culture that was not my own and that uncompromisingly high standards yield incredible results. In my undergraduate and graduate education, I was exposed to some incredible minds: Dan Franklin, Mynra Gantner, Art Casciato, Steven Bauer, Jack Kirby, and Ryan Barilleaux, to name a few.  However, if I had to pick one teacher to honor as having the most profound influence on my life, it would have to be my undergraduate history and American studies professor, Elliot Gorn. 

As a teacher and a student, I have observed that effective educators can take a variety of forms.  I have learned a great deal from teachers with disparate methods and demeanors.  “Elliot,” as he instructed us to call him, had a rare combination of intellectualism and informality that enabled him to impart a great deal, while creating one of the most comfortable learning environments I have ever encountered.  As I got to know him, I was awestruck by his scholarship.   Yet, Elliot never pretended to know all the answers.  Instead, he always found the questions that forced me to think conceptually.   In Elliot’s class, I learned how to make abstract connections relative to complex social phenomenon.  Importantly, though, Elliot never let us forget that society and history deal with real people with real lives, who face real issues. 

I won’t go so far as to say that Elliot taught me how to be a scholar, because I did not really learn that until graduate school, but what he did teach me was how to think like a scholar.   In Elliot’s class learning, for me, became both a pleasure and an obligation.  I genuinely enjoyed the readings, the class discussions, etc.  However, he engendered the kind of personal loyalty that made me determined not to disappoint him in any writing or work I did.  Elliot took my work and my thinking seriously.  This gave me confidence.  Consequently, I pushed myself to intellectual limits I had not previously discovered.  I came to recognize that education is not a product; education is a struggle.  I do not mean this in a pejorative sense, but in the sense that education is a process of disclosure that is not and should not be easy.  I learned that there is much greater satisfaction in unearthing something difficult than in repeating something tired.  I look back on some of my early work in his class, and I think it would have been very easy to mock my clich├ęs, but somehow he taught me to reject them without making me feel like an idiot. 

Nonetheless, my struggle in his classes and my success in his classes helped me decide that I loved learning and loved teaching enough to make learning and teaching my career. As a teacher, I have incessantly worked to give my students the sense of excitement at intellectual development that I found in Elliot Gorn’s class.

The excitement and enthusiasm of a new school year always causes me to reflect on what teachers like Elliot Gorn gave to me and countless other students in his care.  Noting that no one has been inclined to respond to my blog, I would invite the HA community and readers of this blog to share their story of a teacher/coach who inspired them and shaped them.  Please comment below!


  1. Dr. Phillipps, I apologize for not commenting on your blog. I have found your posts informative and quote worthy. Thank you. Your article regarding character and creativity from December 2012 was very interesting. I think it gives insight to what you would like to see at Houston Academy in the coming years. I was excited to see these ideas in writing. I am a "think outside the box," person, too. I recently read an article that said when people were asked about their most memorable or teachable moments, 80% said that these experiences happened when they were not with a parent. I immediately felt saddened by this as I have spent my time trying to give my children a lifetime of memories and educational experiences. However, once I thought about my own "valuable" experiences, I realized it was true. So after reading your blog I thought of one of my many life-changing experiences, and it was directly related to my 10th grade history teacher, Mr. Benjamin Mosley. Mr. Mosley was in his late 30's or early 40's. He was a tall, soft spoken, African American. It was North Georgia, 1972. Mr. Mosley was the was the first teacher who ever looked at me and acted as if I had a valid opinion. We openly discussed Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and My Lai. I remember for the first time feeling I could make a difference in the world. This happened while I listened to his story of walking with Dr. King and shaking J.F.K's hand. These conversations at school were different from the ones with my parents. When hearing that he, my teacher, had touched history, it made me believe that was available to me as well. I will never forget him and how he opened the world to me. He gave me value by listening. He encouraged creative thinking without judgement and used history to help me understand what it means to have character. It could not have happened at home. Experiences away from parents are important. Our children spend a large portion of their day with educators. My prayer is that the "80%" of experiences that impact my children's lives will be enriching, thought-provoking and encourage them to see their value.

  2. Scott,
    One of the teachers that influenced me the most was my undergraduate American literature professor, Alan Belsches. He was a master at teaching us how to analyze literature, and he also drove me to never "settle" for anything less than the very best I can possibly be. I think about him every day as I teach and constantly strive to develop this love of learning in the lives of my students. I want them to remember the struggle as well as the satisfaction and happiness that comes when the "light bulb goes off" and they understand something in an entirely new light.

    Emily Blumberg

  3. Mine was Leonard Folgarait. The class was Modern Architecture in the second semester of my junior year of college. At that time, I was a grade mongering pre-med student solely focused on hearing back from medical schools. Entering his class, I found an unassuming, soft-spoken individual. He did not blow you away with a quick wit or an overly professorial presence. However, he was passionate about the material, teaching, and the student's perspective. In his class, we questioned the true role of a wall in an age of steel and glass. We were introduced to Mies van der Rohe's ideal of "less is more," Louis Sullivan's "form follows function," and Eileen Gray's unapologetic independence. We learned of Frank Lloyd Wright's giant successes professionally and his equally impressive failures privately. We visited Philip Johnson's glass house in the woods of Connecticut, Wright's cantilevered Falling Water over a stream in Pennsylvania, and Le Corbusier's rooftop gardens at Villa Savoye outside of Paris. Professor Folgarait was able to present the material and accompanying visuals to satisfy the set curriculum, while filling in "the rest of the story" with just enough Page Six-type detail to make it relevant and interesting to a college-aged kid from Dothan, AL. The material was not to be memorized and regurgitated for a grade only to be forgotten a few days or weeks later, but was to be understood in the necessary context of the times to make the story stick as a learned memory (as many still do now 16 years later).

    William McRae

  4. I have a number of teachers that etched life lessons on my learning. From the time I was in Kindergarten I thought I wanted to be a teacher because of who Mrs. Leonard was! I wanted to learn when I felt loved and appreciated, and thankfully, most of my teachers were excellent in their fields.
    My college professor, Dr. Jamie Meaders, was one of the most significant in my life. He was a broad shouldered man that could sing, conduct, and demand excellence like none I've ever seen. He could also throw a football and run--unlike many other male musicians I had known up to that point.
    I strive for excellence in my teaching because of the excellence that was laid before me. I seek to love and appreciate where my students are before I "demand" a change. What a privilege to work at a school where excellence and love are required!

    Laura Grace Holmes