Thursday, August 13, 2009

I most remember my tough teachers

by Richard L. Weaver II

When I talk to fourth- and fifth-grade students about writing, I tell them about tough teachers. Here are the exact notes I use when I speak to them. I capitalize, underline, and use boldface so I can read the notes from some distance and just catch the essence of an idea I want to discuss. “ACCEPT AND APPRECIATE TOUGH TEACHERS who have high standards and expect you to live up to or exceed their standards. TOUGH TEACHERS can be the most help to you in developing your skills. WHAT IS A TOUGH TEACHER?

1. Tough teachers include writing assignments in their classes.

2. Tough teachers expect a lot of their students.

3. Tough teachers take the time to read and critique what their students write.

4. Tough teachers do not let their students slide by.

5. Tough teachers will give you exactly what you deserve on their assignments. When you perform well, you will know it, and you will be rewarded for it.”

I haven’t had many tough teachers, but those I had made an indelible impression. Most of my schooling took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I have to say that all my teachers were first rate; thus, when I single out a number for special attention, they went beyond “first-rate” to exceptional. The second thing I must say — as a caveat, I suppose — is that I was a very good student, and I loved learning. I was deeply engaged in all my courses, and I knew, early on, that if I truly wanted to be a doctor (established in a career-project required in a ninth-grade social-studies class), I would have to do well in school. But “doing well” was never a direct or motivating concern, since “doing well” came naturally from my love of learning.

I can’t remember a single teacher who I can say was deficient in any way. So, when I single out teachers who inspired me by their toughness, they don’t necessarily stand head and shoulders above the rest, they simply made their impression by their toughness.

The first English teacher who I considered tough was Mr. Granville. He was a very slight, small gentleman who demonstrated great respect for his students and their abilities. His toughness came from his demands for his writing assignments. It was an Advanced English course, but he was fastidious to a “t” in looking for proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. He caught every dangling preposition, incomplete sentence, poorly formed paragraph, and switches in person of pronouns.

In biology, my course with Mr. Barclay proved to me that I wanted to pursue science. Now, I have to admit that I enjoy art, and I can draw well without a great deal of effort. Mr. Barclay asked us to draw in our notebooks, images of what we were studying so that we could attach labels to the various parts. I liked the exactness he demanded in both the drawings and labeling. Also, Mr. Barclay ran his classes with discipline. He knew what he wanted, demanded attention, and taught his students a wealth of information as a result.

Mr. Reese introduced me to physics. I had never had a similar course, nor did I know anything about it before his class. Because physics is about the science that treats matter and energy and the laws governing their reciprocal interplay, I appreciated the need for precise observation, experimental control, and exact measurement. Through Mr. Reese, I developed a new understanding of the basics of mechanics, heat, light, sound, electricity, and magnetism. His classes were full of experiments, close observation, and accurate measurement, and I loved the care he took in overseeing our work and prompting us to look more closely or observe more accurately.

At the website, Free Republic, in an essay entitled, “Tough teachers inspire fear, tears, gratitude,” reprinted from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Patti Ghezzi cites her first example of a teacher named Dan Rawlins. She writes, “Rawlins, a former Emory University professor now teaching biology at Gwinnett County's Brookwood High School, is so ruthless in his grading, so unyielding to cries for mercy, students who have never gotten a grade lower than an A-minus struggle just to pass.” Now, I have to admit, I have never had a teacher so ruthless or unyielding; however, as a professor directing a large, basic, speech-communication course at Bowling Green State University (Bowling Green, Ohio), for some students, I developed such a reputation.

For those students who had heard of and believed in stories of my ruthlessness and unyielding nature, they chose to take the required course under the pass/fail option as opposed to taking it for a grade.

What I found in all the courses I taught is the necessity for laying out course requirements clearly and specifically at the beginning of the course. This, I found, was the best way to avoid problems students encountered once into the course or once they were given their first grade. In a large (1,000 students per term), beginning, required, speech-communication course, many students thought it should be an “easy A.” We (my teaching assistants using my standards) did not grade on effort but on demonstrated ability and achievement. Students had to earn what they received. Many students, of course, objected; they wanted to be handed their “pass” or their “A.”

Just an interesting aside, in another large course I taught (300 students per term), I made it clear in large letters on the syllabus and during the first-day introduction of the course, that attendance at every class/lecture was mandatory — no exceptions. It proved, on a continuing basis, to quickly eliminate all those who elected the course as a lark, an easy A, or did not plan to attend. It was a successful deterrent to the lazy, uninterested, and uncommitted.

I have often written of the toughest teacher I encountered in my entire academic career — Dr. Robert Gunderson — director of my Ph.D. dissertation. I write often about him because he was, basically, the man who taught me how to write. Also, I write about him because of his persistent presence whenever I write. Coming from the University of Michigan, I actually sought him out at Indiana University specifically because he was known as a tough teacher.

One of the quotes Ghezzi cites at the end of her article is by a student who had a tough teacher: "You were the most intellectually influential teacher of my life." I have found the same to be true of the tough teachers in my life. There were a few others, but only a few. But, when I look back over a career of 20 years in school, I know that the choices I made, the progress I displayed, the skills I developed, and the knowledge I acquired was influenced most by my tough teachers


At theOriononline, Lindsay Casale writes about her experience with a tough teacher in her essay, “Tough teachers offer life lessons.”

At, Tom Lovett writes another testimonial. Lovett’s final words, after several examples, were, “Yeah, they may be tough. Yeah, they may be feared, but they're the instructors who treat you like adults.
They're the ones who see their job as preparing you for life in the "real world." And they take that responsibility seriously. That lesson alone is worth the challenge.”


Copyright August, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.


  1. Maximillion Ryan IIIAugust 13, 2009 at 2:53 PM

    My toughest teacher was in seventh grade English. I hated diagramming sentences and the red marks I would receive for missing even one dangling participle (modifier), but I see now how valuable her contributions were to my life.

  2. As we are being taught there is no way that we can be completely objective about what we are being taught and by whom. We can only judge the greatness, effectiveness, or worth of the subjectmatter or our teachers by looking in life's rear-view mirror. It is always amazing to me to see those things I was taught (or the teachers who taught me) suddenly and dramatically appear in my life in some unexpected and spectacular manner.

  3. I had Dr. Dan Rawlins as my teacher. He is, by far, the very best of the educators I've ever encountered. It's particularly rewarding to look back and realize that such a highly qualified individual even bothered to teach biology at a high school level.

    Tough teachers not only make kids learn, but they demonstrate leadership. Perhaps it didn't seem apparent to me when I was a student in his class, but it's clear now that his methods of LEADING a course were very different (and perhaps even controversial) from the way other teachers were doing it.

    These behavior traits he displayed (courage, unyielding to "the regular way of doing things", going really deep and having really high expectations, etc.) got ingrained into me just as much as the biology. Today, I'm applying those same traits in my own capacity in management at a multi-billion dollar multinational. My promotions and success as a leader are very attributable to the behaviors Dr. Rawlins portrayed and I can only appreciate this now looking back.

    Richard, your article is spot on. But I would even add on and say that it's not just the content the teachers are displaying that matters, but their mannerisms and behaviors and attitude can also go a long way in shaping and altering an individual.

    Tough teachers, we need. you. And we love you. Even if it doesn't seem like it when we're the kids in class.


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