Teacher Appreciation: Defying Gravity- Teachers Who Keep Reaching
By Lilly Strieder (guest contributor)
When I think of the teachers that have inspired both me and my education, two words always come to mind: caring and passion. These traits have manifested themselves in different ways, but always leave an impact. Instead of dedicating this teachers appreciation post to just one teacher, I want to take this moment to applaud all of the zany, extraordinary, brilliant, slightly mad teachers out there, each dedicated to giving the next generation something to drive their own work. Here, I will highlight a few whose work continues to drive me today.
As a teenage ballerina, I sometimes felt trapped in the confines of routine: wake up, attend school, go to the studio midday and follow detailed instructions, go home to do more schoolwork, and repeat. One day, however, we had a guest teacher in the dance studio – a character who shook things up. This fellow was from the great Cuban ballet tradition and was so excited to share the history of every step – something we did not delve into much before. “Did you know we wore these character shoes because the founder of ballet – a French King – wore them?” I did not. “Did you know the story of this ballet [Swan Lake] came from a Russian folk tale about an evil witch that turned a bride into a duck?” Again, I did not but, through stories and through unbridled enthusiasm that was expressed through clapping hands and stomping feet, I began to feel a great appreciation for our long, long dance history and began researching it extensively. No more did I find myself stuck in a routine; no, now I spent time reading Apollo’s Angels (a book on ballet’s history) or diving into other forms of dance including swing, jazz, folk and character, and tap – each of which has its own unique stories and roots.
That teacher, ultimately, reminded me to keep being excited in my work and to appreciate each small thing, such as a single movement, as part of the thread of history. My love of learning stems, at least in part, from this great ballet teacher.
I was not jazzed to fulfill my moral philosophy requirement in my first year of college. Call it a lack of interest in the subject matter, call it being distracted by a comedy sketch I was writing for my satirical theatre group and not having much capacity for other things, call it a concern that the teacher would prattle on about other dimensions and I would not follow, I was not excited when I grudgingly shuffled into the classroom. How surprised I was when the professor began discussing the subject! His enthusiasm leapt across the room to where I was hiding in the back (when I believe I will not like something, I go all out). I leaned forward – suddenly intrigued. Delving into the first author’s work, he described Plato’s philosophies on love and respect (on that day, it was the dialogue he wrote between him and Socrates about looking into someone’s eyes to understand their essence) in such a way, half the room was moved to tears. I was all in.
A great teacher can take a subject that you do not think much of and turn it into a subject you become invested in and grow to love. That moral philosophy professor who was so passionate about his work helped me to appreciate these ancient texts in a deeply personal way, applying it to everything around me, from my political work to that very comedy sketch. By the end of the course, I was a top student and ran – not shuffled – in.
During an internship in college, I was excited to work at an organization dedicated to a lofty goal in advocacy. Like many advocacy organizations, it was very grassroots in methodology, meaning we spent much time making individual appeals through knocking on doors (it has been years, but I swear I still have blisters from all the marching), along with other forms of organizing, like blogs, emails, and social media. My team leader was an inspiring person, who dedicated time out of his already overly busy day ot make sure interns were learning as much as possible about the field and to make sure we all felt supported and prepared. His lovely spirit, so dedicated to the cause, taught me that those who care will keep going through sore feet, through headaches, to do what they believe is right. He was not a teacher in the conventional sense, but was someone that taught me a great deal.
In my final semester of undergrad, I decided to join a few PhD-level courses at MIT, hoping to challenge both my mental capacity and my schedule’s capacity – I was already taking a full course load, working at a US Senator’s state office, and performing regularly. One of these intensive courses involved reading a book on how technology, culture, and politics intersect between every class, along with writing about them. A little overwhelmed, I raced through the first book as quickly as I could, but the professor had reason: over the course of a few months, he was trying to make sure we knew as much about our subject as possible so that we could be experts (or very nearly near it) in the field. He was re-reading them along with us and that level of expertise we garnered made conversations ever the more fascinating. Feeling like a real scholar, complete with a tweed jacket, I was thrilled to be able to help that professor with his own book by working on researching issues prevalent in it, ultimately taking a trip to the National Archives in DC to perform research. Seeing how generations of people kept and preserved documents for researchers again reminded me of how everything we study is part of a larger thread of history and made reading a book a class all the more worth it – there is so much out there, we should try to know as much as possible about it.
There are a few professors one finds themselves following throughout college – my music and theatre history professor was that professor for me, leading me to sign up for four classes with him. This was, in part, due to my enthusiasm for theatre, both in practice and historically, but also because the professor was such a supportive, guiding figure during a time in which I needed it a little more. This period of time was sandwiched between my move to a dorm at a college near Boston, after years of bouncing around various cities for my performing and political campaigning careers, and me making my post-grad plan. My great professor – whose clothing choices seemed to vary with the play or musical we were studying – helped me to win the school’s writing prize more than once by expert editing and sharp, research-guiding questions, find my performing home in the area, and obtain countless internships and, eventually, my dream job after graduation through wonderful references. More than that, the in-class and office-hours discussions on themes in each piece studied excited my creative spirit endlessly, enabling me to flourish in each assignment.
To this professor, I can only say infinite thanks for everything.
These are only a few of the many teachers that have improved my quality of life in various ways. To the wonderful teachers out there doing the same for countless other students, take a moment to pat yourselves on the back or, in the tradition of theatre, give yourselves a round of applause…!