Notes in the margins: The impact of great teachers

The impact of a great teacher often goes beyond the syllabus and away from the subject they are supposed to be teaching. Sometimes the things you remember most are the notes in the margins, the extra things that they said perhaps largely for themselves. But some of us still listen.

Sometime during the fall of 1990 my high school English teacher talked about pseudocyesis, the condition when a woman’s body shows signs of pregnancy when she is not actually pregnant. I know this because I wrote the word in a notebook full of other interesting words, uninspired doodles, and bad poetry like so many teenage girls carry.

I don’t remember why he was talking about pseudocyesis. (We read Hamlet that semester, so an alternate Ophelia motivation theory perhaps?) All I know for sure is that in the summer of 2003 I wrote my first full-length play. That play is called Pseudo-Kinesis, based on the word pseudocyesis, and a false pregnancy is a plot point.

Although I had written some plays as an undergrad, that play was the one that made me start identifying as a playwright. Without that seemingly trivial moment in a high school English class that play would never have been written.

I had an information security teacher who spent part of a class talking about about Edward Tufte’s essay Powerpoint is Evil. Later, I would ask for one of Tufte’s books for Christmas.

Years after that I would jump at the chance to attend one of Edward Tufte’s seminar and would become an evangelist of his gospel against the use of pie charts. (The viewer infers a significance in the positions of the data sets where there is none. Do not use pie charts.)

I had another teacher who infuriated the entire class (including me) by including a question on a test asking who wrote our text book. This led to a thorough discussion about the importance of knowing who you are learning from.

When I taught I sometimes used that same test question. (Even if I warned students I was going to do it, most of them got it wrong.)

I have written before about what I learned about bats from a management professor.

When teachers say things that aren’t directly tied to their subjects they are often confronted with the question “Will this be on the test?” posed more as criticism than inquiry.

I was never one to mind the tangents.

Don’t get me wrong. These teachers taught their “official” subjects as well. But it’s these unique details that make these teachers more memorable than all the other teachers I had who taught similar subjects. These teachers enriched my life in ways they could never have anticipated.

That’s what great teachers do.

So the next time you are in class for school or work or anything else and the teacher starts going a bit off topic, pay attention. You just might learn something.


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