• Brent Kaneft

A Good Teacher Dies


I think we all imitate our favorite teachers from high school and college, to some degree at least. Although educational scholars suggest this pattern can inhibit student learning in the 21st century (believing, that is, that there's only one way to teach well because that's how the material was presented to us), I think that there are things to hold onto from the past, if for no other reason than that those things from the past still remain relevant in our present.

My British Literature professor at Presbyterian College, Dr. James Lister Skinner III, died this week. He was one of "those" professors: tougher than hell, passionate to obsessive, and relentlessly critical of anything that distracts us from what's important - literature, love, emotion, humanity. Those who took his class showed up scared to death, but left changed forever. I liken it to a sculpture my dad keeps in his office: a glass man shedding a copper skin, emerging from the cocoon of all that wastes our time, dampens our spirits.

I remember when he introduced Pride and Prejudice how he told us that when he proposed to his wife, he told her that whether or not she agreed to marry him, she should know that he'd always be in love with her and another woman - Elizabeth Bennett.

I remember, too, when I failed his test on Vanity Fair (because I thought fraternity life was just a little more important), he wrote at the end of my test, "You have deprived yourself of a great deal. Why?"

He lectured most of the time, but we didn't mind. His passion captivated us. And yes, it's possible to keep the attention of a teenager by lecturing for 50 minutes. Perhaps the difference between him and other lecturers is that we students believed what he said and we believed he believed it. He said once that his lifetime goal was to finish the entire Trollope collection. I have no doubt he met that goal. He was a voracious reader. During graduate school he always left a Victorian Novel on his dashboard and read it when he was stuck in traffic or stopped at intersections.That's the kind of person he was.

He was the first teacher who revealed to me that literature could actually change your life. And there is little doubt that he put me on a trajectory to becoming a teacher. What I learned from him? What do I hope my students see in me that I saw in him?

1. When the classroom door closes, nothing else matters but the lesson of the day.

2. Passion is contagious and inspiring.

3. If you don't believe in what you're teaching, neither will your students.

4. The best teachers teach themselves: who they are and how their subjects changed their lives.

Thank you, Dr. Skinner. RIP.


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