David Bruce: Education Anecdotes


Young people’s author Richard Peck had a tough English teacher named Miss Franklin during his senior year in high school. On the students’ first day of class, she announced, “I can get all of you in this room into the colleges of your choice — or I can keep you out.” When he handed in his first composition in her course, she wrote on it, “Never express yourself again on my time. Find a more interesting topic.” Seventeen-year-old Richard asked her what would be a more interesting topic than himself. She replied, “Almost anything.”

In the 2009-2010 academic year, actor Tony Danza, who has a college degree in education, but not a teaching license, began teaching a sophomore English course at Northeast High School in Philadelphia, PA, as part of an A&E reality series called Teach. Because he does not have a teaching certificate, another teacher is always present in the one course that Mr. Danza teaches, but fortunately the other teacher mostly observes and seldom needs to take over for Mr. Danza. As you may expect, Mr. Danza occasionally makes mistakes. He says that he cried three times his first week of teaching. He once made a mistake when he tried to explain the role of the omniscient narrator, and one of his students corrected him. After that, he says that he was tempted to telephone every teacher that he had ever had and tell them that he had not realized how difficult teaching is. Mr. Danza has also run into non-teaching problems. Once he got down on his hands and knees and washed the floor of his classroom because it was not clean enough for him. Mr. Danza really does teach, guiding his students through such works of literature as Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men. The school district had to decide whether to renew Mr. Danza’s contract partway through the school year. Because his students had made good academic progress, the district did renew his contract. Mr. Danza and the production company benefit the high school and the school district financially, paying it $3,500 for each episode (13 episodes in all) and paying for some expenses, as well as air-conditioning the library and donating money to the school uniform fund and the band and the choir. In addition, it put on “ExtravaDanza,” a song-and-dance benefit that raised $12,000 for the school district.

When he was a child, Walter Dean Myers loved comic books, even smuggling the forbidden reading into his house in the legs of his pants. When he was in the 5th grade, his teacher caught him reading a comic book in class. Disgusted, she handed him a book of Scandinavian fairy tales and said, “If you’re going to sit here and read, you might as well read something worthwhile.” Mr. Myers remembers, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He read that book and other books she handed to him, and he became a reader. He worried that reading might not be well regarded by many of his friends, and often he carried library books inside a brown paper bag so that other children could not see them. His teacher, Mrs. Conway, helped him in other ways. Young Walter had a speech impediment, and she required students to recite a poem out loud in front of the class; however, the poem could be something that the student had written. Walter wrote a poem that used only words that he could pronounce well, and he impressed the other students with his recitation.

Teachers, of course, sometimes run into difficulties, often of a funny nature. 1) One teacher used to help herself remember which child went with each name by writing a short description of a child by his or her name. This led to a problem: A boy saw the description “Looks like Woody Allen” by his name, and he told his parents, who were not happy about the description. 2) A teacher disciplined a child who told him that his name was Daniel Stephens. After she had given a few detentions to “Daniel Stephens,” the real Daniel Stephens came to her and asked why she was punishing him with detentions. 3) A teacher forgot to pack her lunch and was forced to buy and eat an egg sandwich, which filled her with gas. After she broke wind very loudly in front of her students, they gave her unflattering nicknames for a few weeks. 4) A student teacher muttered “Actually” under his breath, but what the teacher observing him thought he had muttered was “Oh, sh*t,” a phrase the observing teacher wrote about on the evaluation of his teaching performance.

Helen Lieberstein Shaphren taught deaf children, and she took the children each week to an ice cream parlor, where they ordered a cone of whatever flavor ice cream they wanted; however, if they did not speak clearly enough for the proprietor of the ice cream parlor to understand them, they got vanilla ice cream. One boy cried when he got vanilla ice cream instead of the chocolate ice cream he wanted, but Ms. Shaphren remained firm. It took months of effort for the little boy to order clearly enough for the proprietor of the ice cream parlor to understand his order, but when he did, both Mrs. Shaphren and the proprietor of the ice cream parlor cried. (Mrs. Shaphren was a pioneer of education for deaf children. She once applied for a teaching job and was told that Arizona had no need of special education but she could teach in a regular classroom. She declined the job offer, and she opened a school for deaf children in her home.)

Comedian Richard Pryor had an understanding teacher named Miss Marguerite Yingst when he was in the sixth grade. He often came to school late, and she made a deal with him. If he came to school on time each day for a week, she would let get in front of the class and perform for 10 minutes Friday afternoon. She remembers, “It was great for Richard. The other pupils loved him. And Richard kept his promise. Got to school on time.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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