Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Real McCoy

I recently searched "John Strauss" on Google and was surprised that none of the search results said, "the best teacher I've ever had in high school." In fact, there was barely any information or mention of the John Strauss I wanted to read about, a true rock star of a teacher and a living legend at the high school I graduated from. 

Mr. Strauss was my senior year English teacher. He was not a young, highly motivated, self-proclaimed hotshot. Nor was he part of some national movement claiming its teachers were more effective than others. When I had Mr. Strauss, he was already a veteran teacher, humble and modest. He had a sense of humor and was deeply committed, but most importantly, he had passion. In fact, there's a picture of him in my senior year high school yearbook with a caption that reads, "Mr. Strauss is a perfect example that a passion for teaching can bring enjoyment to classes." When I read that at the tender age of eighteen, I probably didn't understand what that statement really meant. I finally got it when I read it again at twenty-seven with a few years of teaching experience of my own. This guy was the real McCoy.

In school, I typically did not enjoy English class, nor did I enjoy reading books in general. Yet, Mr. Strauss's English class was something I looked forward to every single day. My first memory of Mr. Strauss is of him reenacting a scene from the Greek tragedy Hecuba. Mr. Strauss was hunched over and in despair, reciting lines from the play and channeling Hecuba's sense of loss. I was stunned at how "into it" he was. This happened somewhere around the beginning of the school year and it completely won me over.

Strauss would go on to reenact various scenes from literature in front of the class throughout the year. He helped us all individually connect to the text. We didn't waste time test-prepping for the AP exam in May, yet many of his students scored well year after year. We would instead spend a lot of time as a class discussing texts we were assigned to read. Even if I didn't do the reading, I couldn't help but learn something from the discussions he facilitated. After that, we would reflect on our readings via writing, and he would challenge us to improve our style and thought process. I remember I was trying to squeeze an essay that was six paragraphs into five and he said, "You know six paragraphs are okay, right? Stick with what feels natural." That blew my mind. This wasn't going to be a cookie-cutter, formulaic class. So instead I decided I should just do what the man said: actually learn to write well and coherently. 

I don't ever recall Mr. Strauss printing worksheets with Illinois state standards highlighted at the top. I never even knew what standards were covered in senior year English. I never received a document that summarized which standards I struggled with or mastered. We never took a single multiple-choice test in his class, ever. Shit, I didn't even know what my grade was half the time. 

We, the students, received our feedback from the source. Strauss often conferenced with us one-on-one during our writing assignments. We didn't memorize dictionary definitions of new words. Instead, we developed our vocabulary through our literary discussions. It was kind of hard not to know the meaning of a new word given how much it got thrown around during discussion. If I hadn't read the homework the night before, the classroom discussions sparked so much interest in me that I ended up finishing books well ahead of deadlines. I was usually a pretty good bullshitter during classroom discussions, but in Mr. Strauss's class, I didn't want to be. This, coming from the kid who went to Spark Notes for just about everything. 

Like any veteran, Mr. Strauss had some classroom tricks to keep our attention during discussions. If a student had his/her hand up in the air, he would look him/her right in the eye, but call on someone else. It was confusing, but hilarious. This small, but clever trick kept us on our toes. Of course, we could've reacted to his surprise cold-calling the wrong way, i.e. Strauss did it to call on someone not paying attention, etc. The problem was, we were all participating and paying attention, so it wasn't really a problem. There was nothing to do but play his game. 

Someone could argue we didn't have issues because it was an AP class, but from what I heard, Mr. Strauss was successful and well-respected in every class he taught. He was liked by his colleagues, his students and even by students who never took his class. In fact, my younger brother never had the opportunity to take his class, but Strauss went out of his way to check up on him every so often since I had expressed concern about being so far away from him.  

So with all this talk about teacher evaluations and the corporate-education reform movement, I can't help but worry about him and other teachers like him. I bet if this very same man walked into a new school environment today, he would not be deemed effective by his superiors, regardless of what his students thought of him. He probably wouldn't be the model teacher organizations like Teach for America would present to first-year teachers. He probably wouldn't be the teacher a principal would give kudos to during a morning meeting. Sadly, a teacher like him is probably someone who has retired or is on the verge of retiring, pushed out by those who don't understand, yet control the industry.

Well, I won't forget him. And as I begin my fourth year of teaching, I'm going to try to channel as much of Mr. Strauss as I can in my own classroom. I'm finally getting to a point where I can focus on my students' all-around development, not just curriculum and standards. In reality, that's all fluff compared to how important connecting with someone can be. 


Anonymous said...

Mine was Mr. Owens.

I took three years of chemistry from him and loved every second of it. He didn't teach a day of our advanced chemistry class; we did. It could be seen as lazy, but he knew darned well that to teach a concept you have to KNOW a concept. But beyond chemistry, he truly cared. He listened when I had questions about college or thoughts on life.

I, too, Googled for years with no luck, but was finally able to reconnect with him through another student in that same advanced chemistry class.

He's still awesome.

Anonymous said...

Mine was a guy named Mr. Pece and, although he completely altered the course of my life, is a reason I became a teacher and is my Facebook friend, he's also retired and tends to laugh at me every September when it's time to go back to work (and on some Sunday nights when he's a little bored ;>) ... and he's earned every laugh....
Thanks for this post, man! It was really uplifting.

Anonymous said...

Mine was Bryan Ashkettle.

I took his advanced placement government course in high school. His emphasis on individual growth was crucial. I often remember him asking myself and others, "What did you have for dinner last night?" This type of concern for the individual is critical to the success of any teacher.

As an AP Government teacher, I hope I can emulate his success.

Anonymous said...

My favorite teacher was you mista :)

Although we were only together for one term in school I throughly enjoyed it. I learned something new everyday.it wasnt dull you found ways to keep me entertained and interested in what was going on.I went from wanting to ditch math class out of pure laziness to wanting to go out of curiosity.you had a way of connecting to students that many teachers lack. Definitely a memorable last year in school.

andy s said...

great essay. would have liked to have read one level deeper - you focus the essay on how well he taught and how engaging it was but don't say much about what you actually learned (other than vocab and to read a few books).

Anonymous said...

Very happy to know that some former students still respect and liked their teachers. Teachers need this kind of positive feed-back, to keep these teachers in their jobs.

Anonymous said...

He was my senior year English teacher as well. Never have i had a teacher more concerned about my well being. I will always respect strauss. My dog had surgery n i remember him being completely understanding of me not doing my work those few days. He said pets are part of age family. Ill never forget that, it was really compasionate. He deserves a lot of recognition he's a great man and teacher.

Karen Perry said...

I seem to remember him writing a poem (that I may still have in my yearbook) for my senior AP class and it has a couple of funny lines about everyone in the class! I was impressed then, but seeing it from a teacher's point of view now - I am even more impressed by how well he knew each and every one of us. If he was ever to start a book club, I would sign up immediately as I think it was discussions with him and the class that helped me have a deeper appreciation for Russian and Japanese writers especially.

Anonymous said...

John Strauss is one of the most amazing men I have ever come across. Out of all my years in school, K-12 and some college, Strauss is the only teacher that has had a lasting impression on my life. He taught me how to really read and understand and interpret literature, instead of just analyze it. He instilled in me a passion to write, and a passion to expand my mind. Strauss was a brilliant teacher, and always took time to interact one on one with his students.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful tribute to your teacher. I hope to be like him as I work towards becoming a master English teacher. Have a great school year!

Yo Mista said...

Thank you all for your comments! Seriously, it's shocking how important our "favorite teachers" can be to our development and overall school experience. Let's try to emulate them as much as we can in our own way.