A class act

I knew I’d be a teacher from the time I was ten. And it wasn’t like I thought I’d be a teacher or I wanted to be one — I knew I would.

I don’t think that phenomenon is unique or even all that unusual. I’d bet a lot of adults knew what they’d do from early childhood.

I’m sure Yo Yo Ma never wanted to be a veterinarian, or Mickey Mantle wanted to be an oil executive, or Mel Brooks wanted to be a psychiatrist. And more’s the pity with that last one. If laughter truly is the best medicine, there’s no doubt an hour with Mel Brooks would be more healing than a whole bunch of time with most shrinks.

But I digress…

Once I knew I’d teach, I started checking out my teachers’ methods. In short, I studied how they taught at least as much as what they taught. As a result I formulated The Great Divide of Pedagogy, which is that all lousy teachers are the same in their lousiness, but all good teachers are different in their excellence ( a quick nod to Leo Tolstoy here).

Lousy teachers have one huge thing in common: They either can’t or won’t teach well and they should never be allowed to run a classroom. The are great examples of what never to be.

All good teachers become such by evolving their own unique teaching styles. You can study how they do what they do till the cows come home, but no matter how hard you try to imitate them, you’ll never duplicate them. Trust me, I know.

When I think of a teacher I learned an enormous lot from, but who was my polar opposite, I think of Mr. Nadler.

The man with the plan

Mr. Nadler was my tenth grade world history teacher. He was talk, dark and dignified, always well-appointed, and had a deep mellifluous voice. He was the consummate professional — kind, helpful, and perfectly organized, and never a “warm fuzzy” or “just one of the guys” type.

He may’ve been the most level and organized teacher I ever had. His presentation followed perfect outline form. He wrote material on the board, but he didn’t need to. All we had to do was take notes closely and what emerged was a history lesson in perfect, logical order.

Something else about him made him a great teacher — his pace. He’d figured out how to lecture at a speed that all 16-year-olds could follow, but if their attention wandered, they’d lose important material. But I doubt many kids spaced out in his class: He may’ve had a nonstop delivery, but he was neither monotonal nor metronomic. Plus, somehow, he made the material interesting — he made me want to learn it.

And good thing he did because his class was a Regents class. Flunk the Regents test at year’s end and no matter what your class average was, you got no Regents credit for the course and had to repeat it. But that was never an issue with Mr. Nadler. His Regents results were spectacular. I — a C+ student throughout my Petrova School career — nailed the Regents with a solid A. But that was no big deal, since almost everyone did.

I used to joke that if my dog Happy came to class with me, he would’ve gotten an A on the Regents, too. Of course I exaggerated. He probably would’ve scored no more than a B or B+.

Nothing personal

I mentioned the good teachers and their unique style, but Mr. Nadler had one attribute that makes him stand out from all my other teachers: He was always scrupulously objective. He obviously believed the important part of any lesson was the material, not the teacher. To that end, I never remember him making value judgments or even expressing his opinion on anything in class. I became aware of that early on in his class and I appreciated it — he let us decide how we felt about whatever he presented; he gave us a sense of autonomy of sorts. But he was no pushover about it. We could have opinions, but we also had to be sure we could back them up with valid sources and present them articulately.

I still remember one lesson where he modeled this.

He was giving us a list of various academic disciplines. He named the discipline and then defined it. Among them were biology, geography, zoology, entomology — the usual. Then he came to astronomy.

After he explained it, he said, “Don’t confuse this with astrology. Astronomy is a scientific study of the universe. Astrology is also a study that’s based on the stars exerting control over people’s lives. As I said, it’s a study, but not a scientific one. Still, many people believe it.”

And that was that. He said what it was — a study. He also said what it wasn’t — a science. But he never said how he felt about its validity, or lack of it. That, he left open to us.

I appreciated that. Being of tender years, I knew what astrology was and had figured out the stuff in the daily paper was nonsense, but I still thought that maybe someone, somewhere, was the real deal. It was just a matter of finding them, which I might add, I did for quite a few years, until I formed my final opinion about it.

And that makes Mr. Nadler unique among my best teachers. With the others I can recall all sorts of things they said, jokes and puns they made, personal experiences they shared with us. But not Mr. Nadler.

Even though it’s going on 60 years since I sat in his class, I still remember him as one of my finest teachers and the man who made history come alive for me.

But I can’t remember even a sliver of anything personal about him.

And if Mr. Nadler ever knew that, I’m sure he would’ve been mightily pleased.


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