In more than 15 years of university teaching, I’ve asked grad students why they decided to pursue advanced study: because of a brilliant article in a professional journal? because of a great book? No. Each student invariably speaks of at least one teacher who dramatically and forever changed his or her life.
And I do too. I mention my own undergraduate teachers, Claude Koch, John Grady, and John Keenan. And my high school English teacher, John Buettler.
We recall exhilarating teachers whose weekly emancipation proclamations roused us from our careerist slumbers, who swept us up in such daring intellectual adventures! For the great teacher liberates the spirit, awakening and enflaming a passion for truth, and a student so touched is never quite the same again. That teacher has stirred some deep, mysterious, half-concealed power within the student’s breast, which once unleashed, does change the world.
Extravagant language? A utopian flight? No apologies on this one. For if you’ve witnessed the small daily miracle wrought by a great teacher, you know its beauty and power. By no means are these teachers necessarily intellectuals, or professors, or even classroom teachers at any level. But they are seekers—or better, finders—of wisdom. And they are men and women willing to share their finds with the rest of us.
Have you too had the good fortune to have had at least one such transfiguring encounter in your life? I hope so.
Did I, as a boy at La Salle College in Philadelphia in 1976, even have an inkling of the treasure bestowed on me by Claude Koch? Did I ever fathom his countless hours of devotion in preparing our classes, reading my work, talking with me in his cramped, book-lined office on Olney Avenue? He always found time for me, to exhort, to praise, to criticize, to listen.
How many afternoons did I nab him, just as his office hours were officially ending, just as he was about to head home to dinner! He would glance at his watch, sigh with peeved delight, and invite me in “just for a few minutes” (that mysteriously stretched to an hour). I would settle into my familiar spot, and then the unstructured class hour would commence. Koch’s highest priority was that young mind before him: Teaching was his mission.
Claude Koch, John Grady, John Keenan, John Buettler: all of them without the doctorate. “I couldn’t even be hired today,” John Grady once said to me, long after I had graduated, his voice quivering with emotion. He had no illusions about market realities: He was my economics professor at La Salle, and he’s probably right about his job prospects today. No Ph.D. = no university job, let alone a tenured position.
Yet without him, my alma mater would be a poorer place—and my own life, and the lives of many other students, would also be immeasurably poorer. For that man possessed wisdom. And he shared it. He wasn’t out to convert us students, but he never hesitated to point out the moral and even spiritual implications of economic policies and political decisions. Yes, that man communicated love—a love of students and a love of learning. That love lives on in us, his students. And because it does, everything else that he communicated remains suffused with greater significance.
As I think about the great teachers in my life, their earnest faces, passionate voices, and insistent questions reverberate in my consciousness. These men and women never lost their revolutionary faith that teaching is not just a career but a calling.
Each of my most memorable teachers possesses attributes such as critical intelligence, imagination, passion, generosity, and patience. Each maintains a compassionate concern for the student. Each balances a gentle persistence with a spacious understanding that allows students to discover truths for themselves, that exhibits tolerance without permissiveness, that refuses to impose ideologies on developing minds, that sees everything in its ultimate context, that teaches more by example than by precept. And each teacher shows humility in the recognition of how little he knows.
But also: the strength to act on what he does know. What makes these teachers heroic is their daily demonstration that all the lecturing and note-taking and memorizing has value only if it enables you to feel and think more deeply. It has value only if it helps you to live better.
And for that to happen, a teacher must engage the whole person by passing on his wisdom, by holding up a way of life worth striving for, by enlarging the student’s notion of what is humanly possible and how he might pursue it.
Ultimately, what distinguishes the great teachers is what I can only call their unsparing gift of self, their capacity for caring about students. Not pseudo-care via maudlin gestures or gushy words. Perhaps even a bracing care, laced with stern affection or bolstered by an impersonal rigor. But their aim is always to awaken students to an awareness of their greater potentials.
My great teachers have been teachers who teach students, not just subject matters; teachers who remember they were once students and know that they still can learn from students. These are teachers who do not succumb to the notion that they are simply dealing with ideas or words or numbers in class; they know that they are dealing with people, and with principles too.
“We sometimes forget that teaching isn’t just what one does in that class hour,” John Keenan said to me more than a decade after I had sat, wide-eyed, in his freshman English class. Now I was starting out in my own teaching career.
As we spoke together in the La Salle cafeteria, he turned and gazed out the window at the stream of passing students. He reflected on his life as a teacher. Claude Koch had just retired; he himself was nearing it.
Did I even begin to intuit then that he was passing the baton to me?
“Teaching is really related to who one is, as a whole person,” he continued. “It is working with students, being there to talk to students. I’m happy teaching in a place where good teaching is valued. La Salle’s been a good match for me. But I worry that our reward system is becoming geared to looking out for Number One. I worry that we’re sending young faculty the wrong message: ‘You should be writing an article or preparing a conference paper, not talking to students.’”
He paused. His glance took in the student stream; his tone was gentle yet firm. “Young and old teachers each have a special role to perform with students; the relationship is different. It’s important to have some young teachers who are not so concerned with being ‘productive scholars’ that they can’t ‘waste’ time with students.”
He turned and looked me directly in the face. “If you know what you teach, you will also know how much you don’t know, and that will make you tolerant of others. If you love what you teach, your students will sense it, and they will take the fire of your enthusiasm and the warmth of your concern with them when they depart. If you are lucky, they will have enough fire and warmth to share them with others. In this way, you may enrich the lives of those you have never met.”
How many times have I walked the grounds of Holy Ghost Prep with my old English teacher, John Buettler? How many times have we passed the graves of all the priests and brothers who have taught with him at the school? On one recent day, the conversation turns to his teachers. In the same tones of filial love that John Keenan had spoken about Claude Koch, he speaks about the ghostly presences in his life: Father Frank Meenan, Father Francis Curtin, and others.
John Buettler doesn’t append after those names the phrase “He changed my life”—he doesn’t need to. It is implicit in everything he says. He has encountered not just a model of the good teacher but of the good man. It is not classroom performance, narrowly defined, that marks the great teacher. It is “teaching” in this broadest sense: teaching as a quality of special presence.
No incident better exemplifies that radiant presence than an act of kindness a young teacher performed at Holy Ghost Prep three decades ago. The beneficiary was a boy whom I once knew very well.
He was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. He had never gone on a date before; in fact, he had never been able to muster the courage to ask a girl for a date. But one evening a girl phoned him. He had met her several times at debating tournaments. She invited him to her school’s formal dance, a “soph hop.” Overjoyed at first, he then realized the logistical difficulties were formidable. No evening bus was available. His father worked on the night of the dance. His mother didn’t drive. He didn’t drive yet, nor did the girl—and the dance was 45 miles away. How would he get there and back? The more he thought about it, the more it seemed impossible.
As he explained this sad state of affairs to his teacher, the teacher suddenly interrupted him. “Wait a second! What date is that? Well, I happen to have an invitation to dinner that evening from friends who live near that school.”
“What a miracle!” the boy exclaimed. He marveled at how Providence had made everything work out so beautifully.
And so, through that teacher’s devious solicitude, Stephanie Leone and I did attend her soph hop together on a halcyon spring evening in 1972. Only years later did I discover that my generous chauffeur had no friends near Archbishop Prendergast High School in Drexel Hill. And that this vibrant 25-year-old teacher had taken his flabbergasted fiancée to a boring movie near the dance hall that evening. And that the movie had let out a full two hours before the dance had ended, after which they had waited patiently in the school parking lot.
That’s all there is to the story.
Except to say, publicly for the first time: John Buettler, thank you. For that and for so much more.
John Rodden teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. His latest book is Lionel Trilling and the Critics.