Philosophy of Education: The Reason I Am a Teacher

Philosophy of Education: The Reason I Am a Teacher

By Timothy Dohrer

Earlier this year, ASCD put out this request: "In 200 words or less, tell us about a teacher who made a big difference in your life." Here is the response from the director of the Master of Science in Education Program, Timothy Dohrer.

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Last spring, ASCD put out this request for an upcoming issue:

Educational Leadership's summer issue will be all about making a difference, and we're currently collecting stories for the "Tell Me About" column. In 200 words or less, tell us about a teacher who made a big difference in your life. Be specific -- what did that teacher do, and what difference did it make?

Here’s my exact 200-word response:

“I’m a teacher because of LaVone Holt. As a student at Elk Grove High School in Illinois, Mrs. Holt was a looming, imposing English teacher who took me under her wing and taught me journalism and English over four years, then continued in those subjects in college. Her greatest contribution to my life came on a visit I made to her AP English classroom during Spring Break. She asked what I was studying and I said Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. She handed me her book and announced: “Tim is going to teach you today.” Then she sat down. I was stunned but stumbled through a quick overview of the themes, drew a rough map on the chalkboard, and answered questions from the students. At the end of the period, Mrs. Holt assigned an essay based on my lesson. As I left the room, I knew immediately that I was born to be a teacher. I returned to college and enrolled in my first education classes. I was very lucky to remain quite close with Mrs. Holt for two decades. She passed away recently, knowing that she had changed my life and those of every student I have taught.”

Obviously, there is more to the story than can be expressed in 200 words. This incredible woman had a profound effect on me for 30 years. As a freshman, I found myself in her “Introduction to Journalism” class and I was immediately struck by her intelligence, deep voice and deep vocabulary, and her incredibly raw and honest response to our questions and comments. But within two weeks, Mrs. Holt recognized something inside me: I was a writer. And although I suffered through her red pen comments and critiques, I blossomed as a writer. The next year I took composition with her and learned the ins and outs of writing the research paper. By junior year I was writing and editing for the school newspaper. In my senior year, I was a member of her AP English class, the first ever at my high school, and editor in chief of the newspaper. When I graduated, I received a bevvy of awards for academics and leadership. I asked if Mrs. Holt could be the one to give me each award. Even then I knew how much she had influenced me.

That influence continued for the next few years even while I was at college. It was because of her that I majored in English and Journalism at Indiana University. During school breaks, when I returned to Chicago, I would stop by the school and say hello to her or gave her a call. She always invited me over to her home where she and her husband John would play classical music on real vinyl, serve some kind of exotic concoction for dinner, and talk with me about school, poetry, and politics. Eventually, I invited other alumni to join me and it became a tradition for many years.

 As for the incident that led to me becoming a teacher, it was classic Mrs. Holt. She saw a teachable moment for me and I wasn’t even her student anymore. She was so excited that I had just studied Heart of Darkness and wanted me to share that with the class. I remember her book was filled with marginalia in her beautiful cursive, dog-eared and falling apart. At one point, she yelled at a student in the class to pay attention. He responded: “I am paying attention. I’m taking notes!” To be 19 years old and suddenly realize your purpose in life, THAT is a powerful moment. And I was thrilled! How in the world can I do anything else than this? How can I not follow in the footsteps, my mentor, Mrs. Holt?

For the next two decades, I kept in touch with Mrs. Holt via letters and then eventually some emails. She and I actually did a poetry reading together at the Elk Grove Public Library, a thrill for both of us. She was there at my wedding and again when I received an alumni honor from my high school. She knew that I had become an English teacher, a department chair, a Principal, and a father. 

Mrs. Holt passed away on May 31, 2012. Her husband John followed the next year. As with any loved ones who are gone, we eventually think about them less and less each day. But I am lucky to still be a teacher and there are lots of moments when I am in the act of teaching when I think about her. The other day at the end of a class, I recited “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, a favorite of mine that I studied with Mrs. Holt and one of many poems she required me to memorize. I remember hating memorizing things like that and then reciting them in front of the class. But that was Mrs. Holt; challenging us to be better and pushing us beyond the simple language and ideas of popular culture…to take the road less traveled by. In the end, that is what made the difference for me…and the hundreds of students she taught in her career.

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