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  • October 16th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


Once I took my Brittany, Flick to a fifth grade class, a first foray into the esoteric world of teaching. I thought I was a smash hit in front of the post toddler group until I got a batch of thank you notes that were mostly phrases like, “Thank you for bringing Flick to our class,” or, “We enjoyed having Flick come to our class.”


Obviously, my impact on the world of education was far less memorable than that of my dog. I should have had Flick with me on the eve of my initial teaching debut, a five-day writing workshop at Sterling College in northern Vermont.


Instead, I was terrified. My stomach was a roiling cauldron of acid indigestion, my mind awhirl with the certainty that the unknown that lay ahead of me for the next five days would be an abyss of abject failure and humiliation.


I would be teaching a class on writing, a subject that I had practiced for decades, but also a subject that is often described as “the loneliest profession there is” and not without good reason. Writers self  isolate themselves, cloaked in doubt and often in crushing despair. It is a practice of the mind, by its very nature uncertain and often frightening.


Trying to tell someone else how to write is like trying to tell someone how to ride a horse, without a horse, only far more daunting. It’s said that it was ridiculous for manager Miller Huggins, a pipsqueak of a guy, to try to tell Babe Ruth how to hit. With the writing, you either can or you can’t, you either do or you don’t.


I hiked down a gravel road off the campus of Sterling College, wondering why I had ever wanted to teach a writing workshop or anything else. I remembered a college course in economics, wondering  if the professor who exuded confidence and supreme knowledge in the esoteric workings of stocks, bonds, and the making of money, knew so damn much, why was he teaching about it rather than raking in the cash?


I paused alongside the country road and, while it was not a solution to my apprehension, it was a necessary comment on my mood. I threw up.


All of which is lead up to my blog theme— how do they do it? Teaching I mean? A teacher, to me, is the most sublime of God’s creations. Not only must the teacher have knowledge of the subject involved, but also the ability to convey that knowledge to an assortment of students of varying ability to absorb what they’re hearing and also to care one way or another about it. Teachers must have the patience of Job, the endurance of a marathoner and the charisma of a Broadway matinee idol.


Public education has long been driven by subtle divisions that complicate any semblance of a cohesive whole. Do we want public education or private education? Do we want religious versus nonsectarian education? Now we have an acknowledged battle between those who would teach history as it happened, ugly sores and all, or those who would continue to teach history sanitized and made palatable for those who don’t like to confront the ugliness that involved their forebears.


Do we erase the fundamental meaning of the Civil War, or do we celebrate both sides with monuments and historic episodes that glorify the people and events without revealing the ugly culture that created them?


Now we are faced with a medical conundrum. Do we essentially shut down the education system of the nation as a safety measure until there is a proved vaccine against coronavirus, or do we open schools to traditional norms and run the risk of infecting children? Or if we can minimize the risk to the kids by masking them and distancing them in classrooms, how does that translate to the potential for them carrying coronavirus home to their folks? How do you police kids once released from a more or less controlled classroom environment to where they become kids once again, highly likely to ignore viral threat?


All these are questions for which I have no answer and, as far as I can tell, neither does anyone else. My feeling is that it isn’t going to hurt the nation to shut down education for as long as it takes to ensure its safety, but that undoubtedly is a minority opinion when it comes to the politics involved.


It probably even is a minority opinion among teachers whose livelihood depends upon them being in the classroom and collecting their paychecks. An unemployed teacher is no asset to the national dedication to economic growth, individual productivity, or most importantly, to the educational growth of the nation’s student population.


Our grandson, Martin, and his wife, Alex, both are teachers of elementary school special needs students. Teaching behind plastic shields or through a laptop computer simply won’t do the job. Their students necessarily are hands on and without personal contact between teacher and student effective instruction is simply not going to happen.


Facing ridicule if not outright annihilation on the eve before my debut in front of a group of peers, I remembered the quote by George Bernard Shaw, “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”. That quote has been a bur under the saddle of the teaching profession for more than 100 years, mostly because it ignores the underlying motivation for teaching.


Shaw could write, so he did. But for all I know he would have been the lousiest teacher ever to stand in front of a classroom and bore the socks off his students. I’ve had both. I am reminded of a professor of American history in college who had given the same lecture so often and for so many years that he might as well have been a Disney audio animatronic figure. Once, a student in the large class raised his hand and asked a question. The professor, his rote lecture derailed, grudgingly answered just short of flying into a rage.


Just across campus however I was taking introductory French and the professor, Ward Dorrance, was the best teacher I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. He was a fine writer as well, and not only could he write, he did. But it was teaching where he thrived best. He clearly enjoyed each day’s appearance in front of us. For him, it was a performance and he performed brilliantly. For a bunch of Missouri hicks, as far removed from the boulevards of Paris as you could get, teaching French was a hurdle which Dr. Dorrance jumped with humor and patience.


And, as is all too often the case with administrative politics, he was forced to resign because he was gay in an era when being gay in Missouri not only was frowned upon but was downright illegal. They should’ve fired the history professor, not the real teacher.


I don’t know the motivation behind the history teacher’s choice of profession, but in the case of most teachers I think they are in a classroom because that’s where they want to be more than any place on earth.


Back in antediluvian days all too often becoming a teacher for women was one of the few choices they had for a profession outside of being barefoot and in the kitchen. They could become teachers or they could become beauticians. High schools, including mine, taught home economics as assiduously as they taught shop or other profession destined for those who wanted to work with their hands, wrestle farm animals to the ground for castration or otherwise stay where they had grown up.


Gradually, teaching became a profession rather than a way to escape domestic drudgery. It became a calling, a noble lifestyle, respected. Unfortunately it mostly is recompensed as meagerly as is the calling to be a writer. Both teacher and writer are destined to be among those who “do” but not for the monetary reward.


Our oldest daughter, Carrie, is a case study in a teacher for whom there should be a statue somewhere as magnificent as the one welcoming immigrants to the country, the one with the torch.


She decided early on to become a teacher and she was a teacher for the next 30 years to retirement. As rocky roads go, it had some downright boulders in the path. Her first teaching assignment as a student was on a Minnesota Indian reservation where there were signs in the hallways warning students against setting fires…. Inside the building.


Her first  post graduate teaching job was to motivate a high risk high school class exemplified on television in the show “Welcome Back, Kotter”  Kotter was a teacher trying to influence a class composed of rowdy boys known as sweat hogs. It took an inventive teacher to maintain interest among those students who were basically on their last go around. Carrie would take her sweat hogs on a field trip to some educational venue by promising them a stop at McDonald’s or the equivalent on the way home. Dangling a carrot before the fractious horse.


Subsequently she migrated to a modern high school as an English teacher with students who were typical, rather than fire starters or sweat hogs. Even now, some years after her retirement, she gets comments from long-ago students who were influenced by her and remember her as the best they ever had. George Bernard Shaw may have been a great writer, but he apparently never knew a Carrie Vance DeValk or he wouldn’t have written “Man and Superman.”


I managed to get through that first awful day in Vermont, somehow holding the class attention without resorting to dramatics such as throwing up–guaranteed to grab the attention if not the interest of the students, but hardly a moment to inspire them to improved  writing.


Somehow, I survived that day and the next four and like the old joke about the guy who keeps hitting himself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops I went back 14 more years.  At least once in every session the tiny perverse imp in my brain screamed at me, “Why are you here! What makes you think you have any right to be here?”


By ironic coincidence, Carrie, was in the final class that I taught. She had gotten a grant from her high school to attend a writing workshop and not only chose mine, but chose my class to attend. The tiny ever questioning brain imp asked his usual question, but when I saw Carrie the answer came to me.


Here was a teacher on the verge of retirement after nearly 30 years of trying to have an impact on the lives and development of countless young people, who still was trying to better herself as a teacher (although with me as an inspiration, I was the Miller Huggins speaking batting wisdom to Babe Ruth). Dedication. A never ending effort to be a better teacher. An underpaid, underappreciated influence on the lives of people young and old.


Simply enough, teachers are leaders—leaders who guide us as human beings to a better place in life, if only we listen and learn. For every one of the history duds who fail at this task, there are thousands of inspired and inspirational teachers who make us better human beings. It’s not enough for us to show up and watch the clock, waiting for the bell to ring; it’s up to us as a society to appreciate what teachers do, to pay them appropriately, support them and remember them for their priceless gift of knowledge in the years to come.


I can only be grateful that there are teachers in my past who have influenced me and that there are teachers in my family who now inspire me. I couldn’t have taught Babe Ruth to hit either but someone did and that’s how history is made.








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1 Comment

  1. Paul F. Vang

    October 16th, 2020 at 11:03 am


    Your reference to the history prof who seemed like a Disney animatronic figure brought back memories of my college days and taking a course in Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian 19th Century playwright. The professor not only wrote the textbook, but after giving the same lecture to 40 years worth of students he actually seemed to be asleep while lecturing.

    He was, of course, considered one of the great authorities on Ibsen, though being an authority on 19th century Norwegian playwrights is a somewhat esoteric field by definition.

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