What Makes a Teacher Special?
Who are (or have been) the most important teachers in your life?
Any category, any reason. Think about it.
Growing Up Years
Growing up through to my teens, my heroes were the adults I admired, and the school teachers from whom I took my lessons, both directly and indirectly.
My Dad taught me about fairness, courage, cowardice, respect, and how to work hard for a living.
Dad was both a positive and a negative role model, and I’ve already written about him at length in numerous articles. By his living example, Dad taught me a lot about regret, fear, and the dangers of not dealing with your demons. Dad was suspicious of religions. His faith rested in science, many of the values of the modern world, and his simple series of edicts: Respect the rights of others. Do it right or don’t do it at all. Stand up to bullies.
Maybe nobody else holds a more central position in my psyche than my Dad. Young lessons at his side were set early, and some of them took a long time to reverse. Fathers raise you right in the fray of life. Their hands tend to get dirty.
Directly and indirectly, my Dad taught me how to survive.
The next role model/teacher would have to be my Mother’s father. We called him Poppy. He led by example, was a gentleman, and he bore his losses and burdens with dignity and grace. I still hold my head up high thinking of Poppy.
Poppy also painted landscapes in oil (taught himself, I think), and I found it interesting to look through his Walter Foster art books and see how perspective worked or how to model a form with cross hatching.
Grandparents tend to have more distance from the centre of your life, giving them a wider perspective and often, a wiser view.
My Art Teachers
Dr. Tom Hudson was an internationally-recognized Master Art Educator, and a key proponent of the revolution of the Basic Design programs in the UK in the 1960s. Tom and his colleagues adapted modernist values from Herbert Read and from the practical patterns and programs of the Bauhaus, trying to transform and update art and design teaching across the UK. [View the VADS UK Basic Design online collection.]
As Dean of Education at Emily Carr College of Art + Design (ECCAD), Tom was directly responsible for the structure and evolution of the Foundation (1st year) program that I waded into in 1985. I was so inspired by his passionate lectures on Colour, Drawing, and Modern Art that I soon volunteered for his summer, out-of-class art projects. I remained a student and assistant of his at ECCAD until 1991.
Tom Hudson has been described as pursuing his goals with “missionary zeal”. That was very true of him. He remains the central figure in my training as a visual designer. I still hear his voice when I’m hacking away at some creative challenge, and I continue to find inspiration from his early lessons. Through his art and design tutelage, Tom taught me how to see and understand the big, revolutionary changes in art and design history, how to relate them to current movements and ideas, and how to pursue my own explorations.
Mr. Prinsen was my art class and home room teacher throughout high school in East Vancouver.
He was a practical, direct man with a friendly face and a confident yet sympathetic nature. He had some idea of the challenges my sister and I faced in our difficult home life, and he let me know that he cared.
He was a talented painter who gave me my first lectures in painting and art history. Art was always my favourite subject in school, and in Mr. Prinsen’s class, I learned about the Impressionists, I fell in love with Claude Monet, and I frantically tried to emulate Seraut using felt pens.
In our senior year, Mr. Prinsen gave me and a few of my classmates art books describing the artists and genres that we each had responded to the most. He gave me a book about the Impressionists, and I devoured it and studied it over and over.
Mr. Prinsen was passionate about art – he loved it and he truly understood it. He was a great high-school teacher and a nice man.
My Grown-up Years
My CEOs and Bosses
For years after leaving the art college, I worked for a succession of small private high-tech companies. Most often, I was the resident graphic designer, documentation writer, and creative dog’s body.
Running a small company and taking responsibility for your employees is stressful, and I don’t think I could do it. From my best bosses and coworkers, I’ve seen warmth, humane behavior, responsiveness, compassionate support, and well-reasoned decision making. All bosses should exhibit these values. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Unfortunately, on the other side of the scale I’ve also witnessed yelling, nepotism, loud profanities, lying, massive egos, laziness, weasely sucking up, supervisors with manic eyes and little flecks of foam in their mouth, and dumbfuckery of all sorts.
I’m convinced that some of the people who exhibited the worst of these behaviours were borderline sociopaths. Often they were in Sales. Others were just Bullies, and made the Worst. Bosses. Ever.
Overall, the best and worst of my bosses taught me to trust my own judgement and to maintain my integrity.
Favourite Teachers Whom I’ll Never Meet
These are writers and teachers whose work I’ve really enjoyed and whose voices really reached me. Their expertise cuts across a vast range of subjects, but in each case, their voices have resonated with me very strongly.
The Dalai Lama
His Holiness became an inspiration to me years ago, when I began reading his books. Two of his best books, IMHO, are “The Art of Happiness” and “The Universe in a Single Atom”.
My wife and I saw The Dalai Lama speak at GM Place, when he came to our hometown of Vancouver. The crowds were massive, but very joyful.
The international importance of this man’s living example of loving kindness and compassion simply cannot be overstated.
After reading Stephen Hawking’s book, “A Brief History of Time”, I decided that I needed more background in physics, so I bought a small book called “Relativity: The Special and General Theory“, written by Albert Einstein.
It turns out that Albert Einstein is an excellent explainer of his own theories. I followed his detailed yet easy to comprehend discourse from his initial “man on a train/observer on an embankment” examples, straight through to the Lorenz Transformation. I even limped through the calculus far enough to see the final derivation of his famous equation e=MC2. I had to read this book twice, but it was all there, well said.
I grew so fond of hearing his voice in my head as I progressed through that book, that I began to warmly regard Albert Einstein as my “Uncle Albert”. Even more than 50 years after his death, I believe that he still has a vast multitude of adoring adopted nephews and nieces who feel the same as me.
Karen Armstrong’s book “History of God” did more to help me consolidate my thoughts and feelings about religion and spirituality than almost any other author, with one exception (above).
Her little book on the life of the Buddha was a thing of beauty, at once both humanizing and elevating the character of Siddharta Gautama for me.
In “History of God”, her description of “The Axial Age”, covering the major personalities and eras around which all three monotheistic religions rotated, has stuck with me.
Another adopted Uncle – a Great Uncle, I think. He’s a complex and contradictory figure: bitter yet sweet, biting yet gentle. I picture an older Groucho, way past his prime, skewering some rich upper crust fat cat at a dinner party, and then going home to strum his guitar and bang out an angry letter to the editor about how his own money is subject to too much income tax.
I love watching videos of Groucho on the Dick Cavett show, showing his intelligence and his quieter, more serious side. Stefen Kanfer wrote an amazing biography of Groucho, but best of all, I love dear old Groucho’s own private little autobiography of sorts, called “Memoirs Of A Mangy Lover“. Let him tell his own story in his own surprisingly self-deprecating style, I say. I can read between the lines, hearing his regrets on the one hand, while he tries to get me to laugh with the other.