During a fairly eclectic gathering at a friend’s house recently, the topic arose regarding people who had impacted, really impacted, your life. Although one or both parents were an obvious choice, teachers were high on the list of several present — including myself.
What made this discussion especially interesting was a National Public Radio program I heard at the start of the holiday season, where listeners were asked to thank their favorite teacher with a tweet, a Facebook post, a telephone call, a card or a face-to-face video interview.
My wife and I were driving to Rapid City as we adjusted the volume and listened to people offer comments about an English instructor, a high school guidance counselor and quite a few elementary school teachers.
Although my personal favorites were Sister Catherine Marie — who didn’t believe in homework — and the college professor who steered me on the path toward writing, the teacher who had the greatest impact on me — and likely many others who went through his high school science class — was Leonard Messineo.
But it wasn’t information about chemistry that intrigued me or has stayed with me all these many years later. It was those Friday morning sessions when, after 15 minutes of following the “required” lesson plan, we were permitted — no, encouraged — to spend the next half-hour talking to Mr. Messineo about anything that came into our heads.
Whether it was science, the Church (this was a Catholic school), politics, history, current events or whatever crossed our minds, just ask the question. He would offer a response and then open the floor to discussion between the class and the teacher, as well as among ourselves. And there was a point to this “revised science curriculum.”
“I want you to learn how to think,” Mr. Messineo explained, standing before us, tall and thin in his crisp white laboratory coat, with short, slicked-back hair, a neat tie, vest and polished shoes. “And you learn how to think by asking questions. Question everything. Don’t take anything for granted because I say it, because it’s in a book, or in the news, or especially if it’s on TV.
“The best way to exercise your brain is to learn how to form your own opinion. In order to do that, you need information. The way you get that information is by asking questions, gentlemen, with your voice and with your mind.”
It wasn’t about teaching us his views; it was about helping us to discover our own. Mr. Messineo didn’t care if your opinions were liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican or anywhere in-between, or fully outside the spectrum. In fact, I can still hear him saying: “I’m less concerned about you remembering the periodic table after you leave this school than I am about you learning how to think.”
Of course, he wanted us to learn and retain whatever we could from his science class. But he realized how little most students take forward with them into their lives — even from subjects they’re truly interested in. And maybe he was a bit ahead of his time in that mindset, since recent studies show that 45 percent of college undergraduates show no significant improvement in critical thinking and complex reasoning by the end of their sophomore year.
Still, this isn’t about styles of teaching as much as it’s about acknowledging the impact teachers can have on their students.
“Once children learn how to learn, nothing is going to narrow their mind,” said American educator Marva Collins.
That’s something to think about, especially as the South Dakota Legislature convenes to prepare another budget.
Jim Kent lives in Hot Springs. Write to email@example.com.