Teachers who teach excellence without flinching

From grade school through college I had a lot of teachers. The ones who stand out are those who pushed me beyond my comfort level to achieve something I didn’t think could do. They each turned on a light that illuminated some part of my thinking. The best teachers aren’t always the most popular. My favorite teachers are often those that students consider “mean” because they dare to show students the potential that lies beyond their current levels of achievement.

Jim Glover – typing and drivers-ed teacher
Mr. Glover always comes to mind first when I think of teachers who revolutionized the way I think. I’m pretty sure it was ninth grade that I took his typing class. He stated that everyone would be expected to type 80 word per minute, with no more than 2 mistakes. He also let us know he wouldn’t tolerate any excuses, as there were plenty  of excuses given for why this goal was not possible. He didn’t care if you were a boy or girl. He didn’t care if you had thin or fat fingers. Everyone was going to type 80 wpm, and in case we thought it couldn’t be done with the IBM Selectric typewriters we had on our desks, he pointed to the manual typewriter on his own desk. With his thick fingers he could type over 100 wpm on that machine. He didn’t just declare what he wanted us to do. He was dedicated to the task of helping us reach our goal. He paced around the room, watching our posture, making sure we weren’t looking at the keys. A cardboard “shield of shame” would be placed over the keyboard of anyone who couldn’t resist the temptation to look at the keys. He assured us looking at the keys wasn’t necessary, and it wasn’t. The rigorous exercises and timed tests inched us closer to the goal. Not everyone made it, but most did. I had started the class late and I still ended up with 79wpm and 2 mistakes. I have always thought I would have reached the 80wpm if I had had the entire semester.

Mr. Glover’s method for teaching drivers-ed was novel. He handed out copies of each test, along with the answers. He said he wanted us to know the material so he was going to give us everything we needed to pass the tests. The caveat? In order for an answer to count in a test, we had to write it word-for-word. It had to be perfect. Students grumbled about this, but knew they weren’t going to get anywhere arguing with him. If they worked hard, they got passing scores. They were strongly motivated to drive, and they figured it out.

One student was different, or at least his mother thought so. She didn’t think it was fair that he be held to such a rigorous standard when he wasn’t known for doing well in school. She got the principal involved and the three of them talked it over. The principal asked Mr. Glover if he really thought this this boy was capable of doing the work. Mr. Glover said he knew the boy could do it. They came to an agreement that the mother would help her son study for the tests. It is my understanding that the boy got an ‘A’ in the class.

Mr. Glover was often regarded as a hard-nosed, demanding teacher. I saw him as a man who saw potential that students often did see in themselves. He pushed them realize it even if they weren’t comfortable with his methods. For that he will always stand out as one of my favorite teachers.

Jim Ott – football coach
My senior year I changed schools in order to play football for Kanab High School. For such a small town, Kanab had a reputation for putting together winning football teams year after year. It was a great experience.Coach Hafen, the head coach, was charismatic and popular among the players. Not so popular was Coach Ott, one of the assistant coaches. My first impressions of Coach Ott were not positive. He was cranky and never seemed satisfied with anything we did. Over time, my opinion changed.

Coach Ott was constantly going over the game films, telling us what he had learned from our last game. I started to realize his dedication to the success of our team. I can’t imagine he was getting paid much, yet he would spend his weekends going over films and coming up with strategies to help us win. What I first saw as a disagreeable nature was more likely a frustration with players who couldn’t see their own potential. One of those players was me.

Coach Ott was also my track coach. I was part of the mile relay where 4 of us each ran a 400 meter (440 yard?) stretch of the race. In one of our meets I hadn’t run well and Coach Ott must have thought I was being lazy. He was probably right. He said in the coming week’s practice we would have a “run off” where I would defend my position against anyone who wanted to race me for it. There were several eager takers, but they did not succeed. From that point forward I knew I’d better give a stronger effort.

Near the end of the track season we did very well in the region meet and qualified for State. He said something like, “Ok, now that we’ve qualified, we’re going to make the most of the opportunity”. We practiced hard in the week preceding the state meet. Track practice had always been about running, but Coach Ott now intensified it. We ran 400 meters, then rested, and then ran again. This was repeated over and over and over. None of my previous coaches had ever taken this approach. Our bodies started to respond and our times were improving. My legs weren’t used to that much running and by the state meet I had shin splints that hurt pretty bad. At the same time I was anxious to see what we could do. Coach Ott wrapped up my shins and ankles to help with the pain. If memory serves, I started for our team. Most of the other runners were ahead of me in their staggered starting positions, so until I was coming up the stretch on the far side of the track I didn’t know how I was doing. Apparently I was doing well and the announcer mentioned my name. His words spurred me on.

In the end we took second place in a very close finish. I wanted us to win, but I still came away with a personal victory, I ran my best time ever: 53 seconds. That improvement was because of Coach Ott. Regretfully, it was the last meet of the season and I was a senior. I wouldn’t have another opportunity to find out how much more improvement was possible, at least not in track.

As strange as it might seem, before that moment I had believed that once I was “in shape” my ability was fixed. I hadn’t realized that there are different levels of “in shape”. I hadn’t understood that significant improvement was possible and that latent ability could be coaxed out with hard work and practice. Since that time I have seen it happen repeatedly in life.

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

In the years since, I have often reflected on Coach Ott with great admiration. He wasn’t blessed with a warm personality, but he did his best to wring the best out of the boys he coached—for their sakes, not his. Most of us were probably ignorant of his motives and oblivious to what we could become. In spite of his cranky demeanor he is the one coach I most remember and admire. He taught me that the most helpful words aren’t always the kindest, and the best teachers aren’t always the most popular.

Robert Beecroft – English teacher
Robert was my freshman English teacher at BYU. He is the person who taught me what I know about writing. I’m not saying I’m a great writer, but I used to be terrible. In high school we spent a lot more time on grammar than we did writing.

When I got my first paper back from Robert I couldn’t believe all the red marks on it. I generally did well in high school classes so this was something new. The words “passive voice” stood out the most. They were all over the paper. He also said to avoid being “wordy”. Over time I saw less red and more kudos, though I can’t remember any of my papers without a mark or two of red.

My favorite memory was when he read one of my papers in class. His class was very difficult, but I loved it.

John Weiss – Design instructor

Graphic design was probably mentioned in high school art classes, but I never took those classes. Consequently, I didn’t know it existed until several years into college. I was at a friend’s apartment and his roommate was working on a big project on the floor. “What is that for?”, I asked. He said it was for his graphic design class. I asked which building it was in and went immediately to find it. In the Brimhall Building I found my people.

I submitted artwork for review and found myself accepted into the Design program. John Wiess was one of my first teachers. Throughout my life I had been drawing constantly, but I had never been taught the principles of design. That as John’s job as the 2D Design teacher. In his class we learned about point, line, shape, color, etc. We learned principles like direction, repetition, and contrast—ways of using elements to create interesting compositions.

My favorite part of his class was critique. He laid down the rules:

  1. You must use the language of design to talk about the artwork.
  2. Instead of general statements like “I like it”, or “I don’t like it”, you must give clear examples of what you like or don’t like.
  3. If you say that something is wrong, you must propose the way to fix it.

As much as he tried to tell us we should let our artwork stand on its own during critiques, there were those who got their feelings hurt. Critiques were brutally honest, and some students couldn’t separate themselves from their artwork. In their mind, an attack on the art was an attack on the artist. John would not tolerate excuses. He would say we needed to act as though we were working with art directors in the real world. If an art director asked for a square composition and we delivered a rectangle, he wouldn’t be calling us again. If an art director needed artwork on a Tuesday morning and we missed the deadline, he wouldn’t be calling us again, regardless of our reasons for being late.

One of our projects was a logo. I remember putting my board up on the wall for critique. John said cryptically, “Well, which is it?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. “What do you mean?”, I asked.

He said, “You have two logos up there. You have a fancy icon and you have rendered the logotype in fancy letters. They are fighting for attention. You need to pick one or the other. If you want to use the fancy icon, choose type that is more plain. If you want to use fancy lettering, get rid of the icon.” I wasn’t offended. A light bulb shone brightly in my head and I could see exactly what he was talking about. That lesson has come in handy many times and in many situations.

I was sorry that more students didn’t see the value in his teachings. Yes, I think he could have taught the same principles without the cryptic, and often sarcastic, language. But, he was still a great teacher, and one that I won’t forget.

Ralph Barksdale – illustration instructor
In the Design department there were two areas of emphasis: design and illustration. All students in the department took the same classes for the first two years, and then they chose their emphasis. I was accepted into the illustration program. Ralph Barksdale took us outside on the first day of class. We walked up to a car and he asked what color the car was. “Red”, someone said. “Which part of it is red?” he asked, and he continued by showing us how the shiny top of the car was reflecting the sky and trees above it. The dominant color may have been red, but the car was dappled in shadows and light. We talked about how the appearance of a color changes depending on the color beside it. His classes were a constant source of amazement for me.

Ralph had a good sense of humor and a very mild manner. Yet, he was very confident when he taught. He wasn’t afraid to demonstrate a principle himself. His lessons on perspective stand out most clearly in my mind. He explained how you can’t do perspective if you don’t know how high the viewer’s eyes are in relation to the horizon. He didn’t teach us with theoretical boxes floating in the air. Our assignment was to take a house, a person, and a car from magazine clippings and arrange them in proper perspective. Everything was falling into place and I realized that perspective was not a guessing game. There was science behind it. There was a right way, and many wrong ways, to do it. My images improved dramatically as a result of his teaching. His passion for illustration was obvious and students loved him. He taught me that not every teacher is passionate, and not every teacher is able to revolutionize your thinking. Seek out the masters, and when you find them, listen.

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