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“Bad Teachers” And Good Lessons

In 1960, I took an engineering class at the U of A called Statics. The teacher was, to put it mildly, peculiar. I thought of him as an old man, which means he was probably over fifty. He was very enthusiastic – he wrote on the chalkboard very rapidly and talked a mile a minute. It so happened that the door leading into the classroom was near the front of the room, and when the door was open it rested against the chalk rack. The professor would write formulas etc. on the blackboard as he worked his way across from left to right. When he was at the extreme right of the board and wanted to ‘re-set’ himself to the left side, part of the time he did an odd thing. Rather than turning and walking back to the left side, he would back pedal across the front of the room, moving at a slow run. This usually worked OK, but occasionally he crashed into the edge of the open door. His head and back would strike the door. It made a remarkably loud banging noise; the glass panes in the door rattled. But he seemed to be oblivious to the collision. He bounced off of the door and, without missing a beat, began rapidly erasing and writing his way across the board again. Crashing backward into the door was not his only peculiarity.

We were working our way through a textbook dealing with things such as the stress on various parts of a bridge. There would be several pages of explanation, followed by a set of problems for us to solve. Our teacher selected certain of the problems from each section for us to hand in to be graded. Here is the odd part. Suppose, for example, that on Wednesday we were to hand in problems from the end of section 12. He would introduce the material for section 12 that Wednesday. In other words, for us to complete the homework for the Wednesday assignment, we had to master the material BEFORE he introduced it. That meant that his lectures were a complete waste of time. To survive, and do well - which I did - one had to learn the material by reading the book. That proved to be a very valuable lesson for me during my eight remaining years in college.

Mr. Busby was our tenth grade geometry teacher (1955-56) in Charleston. He was chubby, old, and bald. He was at or near retirement. He was the only math teacher I ever had who, for most of every class, remained seated at his desk. For a typical class he would talk to us about material in the book and then he would have Bob White put an appropriate geometric figure on the board. Bob was excellent at drawing. For the last part of each class, he would make an assignment for the next day and allow us to work on our homework. While we did that, he would put his head on his desk and take a nap.

I was a dutiful student, so I would work on the assigned homework. I was usually successful, but occasionally I would get stuck on a problem and I would go to Mr. Busby for help. I would say, for example, “Mr. Busby, I can’t do problem 6.” He would look up at me from his chair behind the desk and smile. He had a pleasant smile. He would rub his old bald head and say, “Junior, why don’t you work on that problem for another day.” I would do that, and was usually successful. But occasionally I could not solve the problem and I would go back for help. “Mr. Busby, yesterday I asked you about problem 6 and you told me to work on it another day. Well I have, and I still can’t get it.” Mr. Busby would flash that smile at me, rub his bald head and say, “Why don’t you work on it for one more day.” He did that over and over. The class was creeping along so slowly that I could easily afford to spend an entire week working on one problem. Each time I would eventually succeed.

I learned a lesson that was life transforming for me. In math, unlike any other subject that I studied, I could work out the difficult parts all by myself, and when I saw the correct solution to a problem, it was so clear that I did not need Mr. Busby, or anyone else, to tell me that it was correct. That experience in Mr. Busby’s class, when day after day he didn’t show me a solution, was the beginning of my love of mathematics. It helped direct me to a profession that I thoroughly enjoyed all of my working life.

Many people would say that my Statics teacher and Mr. Busby were ‘bad teachers.’ If an education professor had visited my Statics teacher’s classroom, he would have said that his teaching method was all wrong. But I remember him fondly. He was excited about the subject and I learned how to learn by reading the book – an exceedingly valuable lesson. If Mr. Busby was teaching geometry today, he would be deemed a failure. Modern teachers are ‘under the gun’ to cover more and more material to prepare their students for the ever-looming standardized tests they must pass. (Our son is a high school math teacher.) Back then, we were not rushing through the text. I like remembering Mr. Busby. What he did for me was marvelous. I learned very little geometry, but I began a love of mathematics which changed the course of my life.

By usual standards of judging teachers, my Statics teacher and Mr. Busby were ‘bad teachers,’ but I remember each of them fondly, and the lessons I learned in their classes were extremely valuable. For me they proved to be good teachers.