Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Enduring Impact of English Teachers on Students

In my last column

In my last column, I asked several multi-published authors this question: What advice do you wish your English teacher would have given you?

Now, in this column, I'm going to share the answers to the second question I asked: What was the most important thing you learned in your English class that had a lasting impact?

I think impact is important. I've had former students send me Facebook messages thanking me for helping shape their lives. I've had them tell me that they are grateful I insisted they write—for they knew what to do later in college and in life.

Writers are professionals who craft using the English language. Even if they despised their English classes (and often, many did, citing a lack of creativity), many writers still find a way to immerse themselves in written words. Personally, I loved my writing classes. I always wanted to be a writer, and I filled journals with stories that should never see the light of day. I enjoyed seeing my byline over my newspaper articles. When it came to my first book, I chose to write under my own name rather than a pen name simply because I get a rush knowing "That's me!"

Sometimes that impact comes from what teachers do. For Jennifer Stevenson, it was when her English teacher started a high school writers' club. "She created a strong, positive critique culture for us to work in," Stevenson said. "That club affected me for the rest of my life in ways I can't describe."

Ruth Glick, who writes as Rebecca York, said, "I am lucky to be old enough to have had English grammar and punctuation drummed into me, year after year, by a succession of very strict English teachers. This has been a tremendous help to me as a writer. I don't have to worry if I've got the bones of the piece correct. I know they are."

For Kit Frazier, her English teacher allowed her out of class. She said, "My English teacher gave some of her students 'Get Out of School Free' passes to explore and write off campus. We never abused the privilege and always came back with award-winning essays."

Now, I will be honest, in this day and age of schools needing to be locked up and secured better than Fort Knox, school officials aren't going to go for this idea. However, perhaps those students could go to the library, or a commons area, to write. The class could find an alternative setting from which to find inspiration. You'd be amazed how many students actually like to sit on the floor with their backs against a wall instead of in a desk.

As Frazier told me, "Free periods gave me 'permission' to spread my wings and my words."

Often, what English teachers provide students is a framework. Each teacher may not provide everything, but many will add a piece to the puzzle. Susan Pace, who writes as Allison Lane, told me she had four English teachers who made a lifelong impact: her eighth grade teacher who made sure all her students knew punctuation and grammar inside and out; her ninth grade teacher whose semester-long, term paper assignment taught research skills, and her eleventh grade teacher who gave a standing assignment to produce five useless facts a week. She said, "Finding them exposed me to lots of subjects I would not have considered otherwise. Those 'useless' facts have been useful when writing fiction since authors need to know a little bit about everything."

That fourth influential English teacher was her senior teacher, who made sure her students knew how to writing in any style, from factual reports to fictional stories, to newspaper columns, to satire, to humor, to letters and even dissertations. Because of this, she said, "College was easy."

English teachers are often quirky people, and what we say sticks with our kids. One of my former students told me that he always thinks of me when he writes "a lot," because after all, "a lot is two words" and I'd drummed that into his head.

Multi-published author Judy Gill remembers that her English teacher did tell her "Neglect not the gift that is in thee," which Gill suspects may have been a Biblical quote. All of our students should be nurturing their gifts (for all people are gifted in my classroom), whatever those gifts may be. My AP Literature teacher over and over told her class "This too shall pass," which I remember to this day, and it gets me through any rough spot. Finally, Patricia Burroughs wrote that Miss Etheridge taught her something she's never forgotten: "Persons with small minds talk about people. Persons with average minds talk about events. But persons with great minds talk about ideas."

So go forth and nurture those great minds. What you are teaching is relevant, even if those minds don't yet know it.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.