I imagine that great teachers are defined differently by different students at different times in their lives. I can say that I certainly had a good share of wonderful teachers, as well as a few not so wonderful ones. It is my belief that the key point is not what the teacher can force into the student's head; rather, it's how the student feels about learning in that classroom... what the student believes he or she can learn.
In my freshman year of college, I considered several options for my major. None of them would guarantee me a job, but then, the real job market was still four years away. I toyed with the idea of Psychology, Human Relations (what IS that? I never bothered to find out) and English. I secretly wanted to be an English major, but I had heard from various sources that it was a difficult major wherein the student read and analyzed loads novels written in other centuries, and in their senior year wrote a 50 page thesis. Yes, that's 5-0 pages... with endnotes and an extensive bibliography. I nourished my secret hope until I got to Freshman English class. Having been a student in high school who did relatively well in English, I did not realize what a surprise I was in for in this class. Our first papers were returned to us with virtually no sentence untouched by the red pen. The phrases, AWK, PASSIVE! and WHAT? were written extensively in the margins. I remember going home one afternoon, clutching my C+ paper in my hand and wondering if I would have to give up on the English major idea. How was I going to be an English major when I was clearly unable to write a sentence worthy of Freshman English? I slogged through my assignments until one day, Sister Loretta assigned this as our next paper topic:
"Write a paper supporting one of the following statements:
The purpose of education is to obtain a high paying career.
The purpose of education is not for careers."
Now, I was not stupid. I knew all of my college professors would be in favor of the second statement and not the first. But the paper had to be backed up with supporting evidence in either case. Still, even though I was not the typical liberal-minded college student (I later on wrote a paper supporting Reagan's economic policy - the "trickle-down" effect), this was the argument I fully believed in.
At the beginning of the following class, my professor, Sister Loretta began the class session by telling us that overall, our essays had been abysmal. "I gave them to a friend of mine, Brother Benilde, to grade, and as you may or may not know, he's a tough critic..."
The papers were handed out... red marks and indecipherable doctor-like handwriting decorated every paper. My heart sank. I received my paper and there were marks, but not TOO many. I read them carefully, and then, on the back page, this stunner:
"a well-written, logical argument... AT LAST!"
It was like the heavens had opened, and choirs of angels had serenaded me with their joy! Brother Benilde thought I had a logical argument! There was hope!!
Next, I took Classical Literature. Does any non-Literature major have any idea what Classical Literature even IS? Try this on for size: it's basically literature from the time when men walked around with olive branches on their heads and white robes and sandals were THE fashion statement. The Iliad, not to be confused with the watered-down, high school version of the much more entertaining Odyssey. The Iliad (better known as, "... and the blade sliced through his throat, and fluids burst forth, and his head, still speaking, hit the dust") is about a very long, gory war, and this was before the movie version with Brad Pitt. This time my professor WAS Brother Benilde, who was intimidating in class, but anyone could tell he was extraordinarily intelligent. He had no tolerance for bullshit. If you wanted an A, you had to write three papers. Write two papers and you would get no better than a B. One paper = a C, and that's if it's a good paper. I worked my BUTT off just to read and understand the Iliad (one guy who sat next to me argued about why we got a quiz at the beginning of every class asking us, "how many toenails does Achilles' horse have") but I was stymied in understanding what he wanted for his papers. I got my first draft back all marked up, with a curt, "see me" written on the bottom, and I was forced to ask him for help. I'll never forget walking up to his desk and asking that question.
"All you have to do is.... (I don't remember the details, all I remember is the next part...)
Look, you can do this."
And so I did. I did Classical Literature, with the catalogue of ships and the endless bodies dropping into the sand, culminating with Hector and Achilles doing laps around the fortress until finally Hector, even with his noble heart, was defeated. I had Brother Benilde for other classes - The Comedies of Shakespeare, "the quality of mercy is not strained...," The Tragedies of Shakespeare, in which even though I was born and raised a Roman Catholic girl, I heard the only explanation of confession that EVER made any sense to me,
"... What was Romeo's mistake? What was Juliet's mistake? They didn't take it to the community... They isolated themselves from the community. If they had joined in the FABRIC of HUMANITY (one of his all time favorite phrases - I loved it - doesn't it create a nice visual for you? The Fabric of Humanity? Like a beautiful, colorful quilt. ) If they had taken their PROBLEM to the COMMUNITY, they would not have killed themselves. You see, the community SHARES the problem, lessens it. Just like in confession. In confession, you take your problems to the community - you unburden yourself, and the problems become smaller and more manageable."
Did you ever have a time in your life when you could almost feel your mind expanding? This teacher truly taught me how to think... not WHAT to think, but how to think... how to reason logically, create a hypothesis and follow it through to its conclusion with supporting evidence... in writing. I underestimated the importance of that time in my life. Sometimes you don't understand the importance of things when you are in them... that you can almost literally do anything you want to do. When you have that feeling, you need to spend some time wallowing in it. If you get that feeling, most likely you can thank some sort of teacher. Sometimes you just need someone to back you up. Someone to say, "Look, you can do this."