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December 2, 2008

Itís Good to Be a Teacher Ö Part 2

Nick Diaz

“Ten Reasons Why I Envy Teachers” is the title of an article by a New England psychologist, Dr. Michael G. Thompson. In my last installment, I referred to this piece as the basis to my assertion that teachers are, indeed, people who should be envied.


This is in direct contrast to popular culture, which often gives teachers “victim” status, while giving them (us) the excuse to engage in the politics of envy. After all, teachers don’t make that much money, relatively speaking, as society defines success in direct correlation to earnings. Whenever a person is regarded as “successful,” whether in the media or at cocktail parties, it is income that defines the degree of success that person has attained.


Yet Dr. Thompson lists 10, yes, 10 reasons why a highly regarded, successful professional such as he are – or should be – envious of us lowly teachers. In my Tentacle article, I selected two of these reasons for (pardon the pun), class envy. Today I shall dwell on just one more of these:


Reason #3: “Teachers Get to Be Eccentric.” Twentieth-century Canadian novelist William Robertson Davies deftly and humorously described teaching as “the last haven for eccentrics.” How true that is. Those of us who would rather look like “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” are free to do so; those of us who would rather dress like 1960’s hippies are free to do so as well.


Dr. Thompson cites children’s needs for their teachers to be somewhat eccentric, a little off the wall – in other words – “interesting.” Children need to talk about their “weird” teachers at the dinner table, to gossip about them, laugh at them and the silly things they say and do. Many of us have had children who constantly talk about Mr. X or Mrs. Y, in total awe of them, (as we parents wonder what kind of freak is trying to do this or that with and to their children).


Chances are that, if a child has been motivated to work hard and look at a “boring” subject, such as science or math, with a newly found sense of wonderment, he or she has an “eccentric” teacher. Maybe it’s a teacher who dresses or speaks more or less conventionally, yet manages to capture students’ imagination by his or her sharply edged personality.


I look back at my days at the University of Dayton and Brother Richard Liebler, S.M., of the Political Science Department. Bro. Liebler was an eccentric, not because he dressed or presented himself in what one would regard as an eccentric manner, but because he was eccentric in his teaching methods, which reflected his old-fashioned values. Underneath that black suit, black tie, and white shirt, the Marianist uniform at the time, was a lion of eccentric behavior.


A classmate of mine, Dr. Eugene Steuerle, now a senior fellow at The Urban Institute and author of many books on tax policy, sat in several of Bro. Liebler’s classes during those days in the late 60’s. Gene turned in a research paper to Brother Liebler for a class on The American Presidency. Gene’s unusual last name, Steuerle, boasts of three consecutive vowels, which make his name difficult to pronounce, and particularly to spell.


Gene misspelled his own name on the title page to his paper, which I’m sure was excellently researched and written. Brother Liebler took points off this paper for this, to him, unforgivable error.


I got points off one of Brother Liebler’s papers for having dotted the “S” on Harry Truman’s middle initial. Since the “S” in the late president’s name didn’t stand for any given name, it should not be dotted, Brother Liebler insisted. I dotted it; I got points taken off – automatically. That was Brother Liebler.


At the University of Dayton, a Catholic, Marianist university, the priests and brothers in the religious community lived together in Alumni Hall, one of the large dormitory buildings in the center of campus. Not Brother Liebler, who lived on the 3rd floor of St. Joseph Hall, in his office, away from the others in the S.M. community, who apparently couldn’t stand his eccentric ways. Nor could he stand them either.


Many times we POL students would be summoned by Brother Liebler to this office living quarters to go over a paper, or to talk history and politics. His walls were covered with newspaper and magazine clippings; his scrapbooks with clippings from scholarly books and articles. His encyclopedic knowledge of American and world history was remarkable, as was his insistence that his undergraduate students be as good as he, without excuses.


Even today, if one cites any year in the history of the American constitutional republic, I can tell you who held the office of the presidency, when he was elected, who was his vice president(s), and the state from which he was elected. I blame Brother Liebler, an eccentric among eccentrics, for my ability to sound much smarter than I actually am. His insistence on our paying attention to minute details, whether in speaking or in writing, has long outlived this man.


What made this man memorable to me, to Gene Steuerle, and so many others, over so many years is, simply put, his eccentricity. He had a way of getting students to talk about him, honor him, (and yes, fear him). Brother Liebler was a character, eccentric indeed.


School children, whether 6 or 16, love a colorful teacher. They need teachers to be interesting. They want someone whose quirks they can celebrate, share, and gossip about. I’m privileged to work with a bunch of eccentric characters at The Barnesville School. It is this very eccentricity that makes them so effective, so successful, in their daily work with their students. “Success” takes a much broader definition in our profession.


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