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posted on November 9, 2016 | Teaching and Learning
A letter to my fifth grade teacher


Harriet Alto. 
Photo by Shery Larson.

April 5, 1997
I want to comment on
Harriet Alto’s contribution
to my development as a teacher,
a biologist, and a person.

She’s my 5th
grade teacher, she
always will
have been,
and I don’t want to change that.
Partly because of her, I’ve been a teacher myself
for 33 years,
a biologist a bit longer, and a person for 55.
My job in the university this year is to think about how to
improve all teaching, and as one small part of that
effort I reviewed my entire life in schools. 
I share a few things I 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.
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, we loved
her whether laughing or crying,
and 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.
That’s what happens
when teachers do
a good job.

That year I
came to accept that teachers
don’t have to know a lot to empower
the growth of  their students. It
helps, but it isn’t the main
thing. Why?

Really vital
education, even in technical
fields in university, is not about teachers
teaching students, but teachers helping students
learn. We don’t understand that very well, but one

thing we do understand, each of us when we tell
the truth, is that teachers and students are
in the same boat.  Learning flows both
ways and teaching works
better to admit it.

Harriet admitted it
to us, we admitted it to her, and
we learned together.  Mom told me later
that she admitted it to her too, and that
they discussed how important
it is that everyone learns.

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 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, and I’ve
never forgotten that lesson.  I’ve passed
it on to my students and many of
them are passing it on
to their own.

Could a 19
year old teacher ever
dream she could
such broad influence?
Maybe not, but
it is true. 


I also became a
of biology that year,
with Harriet’s support, and I still am.
I’ll never know whether Mom had anything
to do with this, but I got to plan and direct
a field trip for the whole
class.  I spent
more than a whole school day
at Brown’s Lake planning what
we would do, look at,
and talk about. 

The tiny puddle of
a pond was covered with ice
some winters, but even when ice broke
under us we sank only to the thigh.  That
gives you an idea how deep it
was in the middle.

This wasn’t
winter, though, because
there were frogs.  More importantly,
there were frog eggs, which tells
you what time of year it was
if you know frogs.

Farther up the hill
was the Pipe Orchard, a long aban-
doned apple orchard, far from the road.
We had our picnic there, partly because
it was so warm in springtime sun, partly
because we could see the lake nestled in
trees below, and partly because the
water coming from the rusting
pipe sounded and tasted so



I definitely wanted
to share several things with the class:
frogs lay eggs only in certain kinds of places,
and the Pipe Orchard was a great place for picnics.
I also wanted to scare them with lizards sounding
like rattlesnakes in dry leaves, but noisy
5th graders scared the lizards
away too soon.

I began
learning to imagine what
might interest others, and many
other things like what to do when
things don’t work out the
way I plan them.

The point of this story
is not what we did at Brown’s Lake,
though that was important, but the fact that
we did it.  It is irrelevant that to allow 5th graders
to wander in the wilderness alone on schooldays might
be considered foolhardy today (I did see a bear once
in the Pipe Orchard), and though I’ve talked
almost entirely about myself here, the
story is not about me
but Harriet.

Remember I
said education is not about
teaching but learning?  That is my point
about Harriet. I don’t have to tell you anything
about her teaching to show you what a good teacher,
she was, at least for me.  She got out of my way
and let me learn.  That allowed me to learn
more than if she had taught me, and
she gets full credit for that. 

None of this is to say
Harriet didn’t ‘teach’ me anything
in 5th grade. I know she did, b
ut the most
important things can’t be taught directly, only
experienced.  Harriet made it possible for
me to experience them.

Whether other
kids learned anything through
what we did at Brown’s Lake, or even
whether any of them remember even going,
that says more about my teaching than
hers.  I learned an enormous amount
about that through the experience
and it has served me ever
since. That’s huge!

I don’t have to tell you
what Harriet did as a teacher to show
you what a good teacher she was.  She
just was, and the proof is that
I learned.

More important
to my later development than to
anything else, I discovered that I learn
best when I direct my own learning, w
my vision and imagination follow my sense
of  wonder into a great unknown and
beyond it, into the bright light of

Thank you,
Harriet, for helping me learn
that lesson.  I wish you everything good
in your new job as Superintendant and
wish for everyone that they found
someone half as good as you
to replace you.

Lee Gass

Harriet Alto’s new job
was to leave Dunsmuir Elementary School,
where she had taught since I was a 5th grader,
to become Superintendent of Schools
in Castella, a few miles
down the canyon.

Edited June 2022

4 thoughts on “A letter to my fifth grade teacher

  1. Hi Lee, what a wonderful write up about Harriet, she was a wonderful teacher. I remember her with her hair up in a ponytail playing baseball with you boys out on that very rough playground. She was a jewel of a teacher and I will always remember her as one of my favorite teachers. Hope you are doing well. I live in New Mexico and have been here since 1972. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.

    1. Thanks, Ardie, and you’re welcome. I wondered where you disappeared to when you left Dunsmuir.

  2. Hi, Lee,

    What a beautiful testament of love and respect for my favorite teacher ever.

    When I was in 5th grade, in 1970, Mrs. Alto allowed me…no encouraged me… to write and produce my play, “Whoops! I Fell Over a Hole, or When I Met a Leprechaun,” which was performed for all four quads at the new elementary school. I am now a 60-year-old great-grandfather who just finish directing and music directing a world premiere of someone else’s show.

    Harriet Alto began my career process for me nearly 50 years ago, and I am proud to have been her student.

    With deep respect,

    Jim Glica

  3. I just discovered your comment, Jim, and thank you very much for that. And what a wonderful way to express your appreciation. Congratulations to you for the achievements that flowed out of the experience, and congratulations to Harriet for triggering all that growth. It’s wonderful to hear your story.

    If you were 60 in 2019, that means you were 7 years behind my brother Gerald (https://leegass.com/creativity-the-case-of-gerald-gass/, who was 10 years behind me as a student in her class. Between the 3 of us, we span 16 years, or getting toward half a career.

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