I want to comment on Harriet Alto's contribution to my development as a teacher, a biologist, and a person.
April 5, 1997
I want to comment on Harriet Alto’s contribution to my development as a teacher, a biologist, and a person. (Actually I still think of her as Mrs. Spatafora; she is still my 5th grade teacher, she always will be, and I don’t want to change that.) I've been a teacher for 33 years, a biologist for a little longer, and a person for 55. My job in the university this year is to think about how to improve teaching. As part of this Iíve reviewed my entire life in schools, and want to share with you some things I've realized about good teaching by reflecting on my experience of 5th grade.
During that year John Charles and I ate worms, Albert Marske ate garbage, Paul Phipps did who knows what, and everyone laughed at us. We learned important lessons for living with the help of a young, brand new, and absolutely gorgeous teacher. We were her first class, we were two thirds boys, we were horrible, and we loved her whether she was laughing or crying (she did a lot of both). At our 26th high school reunion I confessed my love and got to dance the last dance with her. I'm still in love with Harriet, and that will never change. It is what happens when a teacher does a good job.
I learned that a teacher doesnít have to know a lot to empower the growth of her students. It helps, but it isn’t the main thing. Why? Really vital education, even in technical fields in the university, is not about teachers teaching. It is about teachers helping people learn, which is a different thing that we don’t understand. But all of us understand one thing well. A teacher and her students are in the same boat, and the learning goes a whole lot better when we admit that. Harriet admitted it to us, and Mom said she admitted it to her.
What else did I learn that year? I realized for the first time that I learn best when my teacher loves me as a person - - not for what I know or what I can do but for who I am. I felt loved by Harriet. Everyone did. How could we not? She cared about us so openly that we just knew it. I have never forgotten that lesson. I have passed it to my own students, and many of them are passing it on to theirs. Can a 19 year old teacher dream that she could be so powerful as to have such a broad influence? Maybe not, but it is true.
I also became a teacher of biology that year, with Harriet’s support. As it turned out, I still am. Whether my Mom had anything to do with this I’ll probably never know, but I got to plan and direct a field trip for the whole class. As I remember it, I spent more than one whole day planning this trip, alone on the hill at Brown’s Lake. This tiny puddle of a pond was covered with ice in some winters, but even when the ice broke under us we sank only to the thigh. That gives you an idea how deep it was. This wasn’t winter, though, because there were frogs. More importantly there were frog eggs, and that tells you what time of year it was.
A little farther up the hill, near the place where lizards sounded like rattlesnakes in dry leaves, was the Pipe Orchard. We had our picnic there, partly because it was so warm in the springtime sun, partly because we could see the lake nestled among the trees, and partly because the water coming from the rusting pipe sounded and tasted so wonderful. That is one reason we called it the Pipe Orchard, of course. The other was the long-abandoned apple orchard, probably planted by someone named Brown. I spent a long time planning what we would look at and what we would do. Two things I remember wanting to share with the class are that frogs lay their eggs only in certain kinds of places, and that the Pipe Orchard was the best place to have a picnic. I also learned how to plan; how to imagine what might interest other people, and many other things that have served me since. I appreciate the opportunity to discover them.
The point of this story is not what we did, although that was important, but the fact that we did it. It is not relevant that to allow 5th graders to wander in the wilderness alone might be considered foolhardy today. And although I’ve talked almost entirely about myself, the story is not about me. It is about Harriet. Remember that I said education is not about teaching but learning? Well that is the point; I don’t have to tell you about Harriet’s teaching to show you what a good teacher she was. She got out of my way and allowed me to learn. Whether the other kids learned anything through what I did says more about my teaching than hers, but I learned an enormous amount that has served me ever since.
Remember that I said education is not about teaching but learning? That is my point about Harriet. Because she got out of my way and allowed me to learn, supporting me where she could, I learned, and she gets full credit for that. None of this is to say that she didn’t “teach” me anything in 5th grade. I’m sure she did, but the most important things can’t be taught directly.
I don’t have to tell you stories about what Harriet did as a teacher to show you what a good teacher she was. She was, and the proof is that I learned. More important to my later development than anything else, I discovered that I learn best when I direct my own learning; when my vision and my imagination follow my sense of wonder into a great unknown, and beyond it into the bright light of understanding. Thank you, Harriet, for helping me learn this. I wish you everything in your new job, and wish for everyone in this town that they found someone half as good to replace you.