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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.
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 2/3 boys,
we were horrible, and we loved her
whether she was 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 learned and 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
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 she
admitted it to her too, and 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 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 be so powerful
as to have such broad influence? Maybe
not, but it is true. 
I also became a teacher
of biology that year, with Harriet’s support,
and it turned out that I still am.
Mom had anything to do with this I’ll
never know, but I got to plan and
direct a field trip for the whole
As I remember it, I spent
more than a whole school day alone
on the hill at Brown’s Lake planning the
trip.  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,
near where lizards sounded
like rattlesnakes in dry leaves, was the
Pipe Orchard.  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 from the rusting pipe
sounded and tasted so wonderful.  T
he Pipe Orchard,
long-abandoned apple orchard, far from the road,
probably planted by someone named Brown
long before. I never knew about that. 
spent a long time planning what to
do, ]what we’d look at, what
we’d talk about.

Two things
I definitely wanted to share
with the class were that  frogs lay eggs
only in certain kinds of places and that the
Pipe Orchard was the best place for picnics,
I wanted to scare them with dry leaves,
lizards, and rattlesnakes, but noisy
5th graders scared lizards away too
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, which allowed me to learn
more than if she’d 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 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, w
hen my vision and 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 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 January 2019

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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