Teacher of the Years

Monday, March 5, 2012

I was going through some of my father's slides and came across this picture of my favorite teacher. I think my brother took it when they were on a chemistry field trip. I'm sorry that we moved before I got to take chemistry from her, but I did have her for algebra.

I'm also sorry that I never told her how much she meant to me as a teacher. Dr. Shula Giddens was not just teacher of the year. She was the best teacher I had in all my years of formal education. And she died without ever hearing that from me.

When the husband and wife doctors moved to DeTour Village, Michigan, our small town didn't have enough people to support a two-person practice. So Mrs. Dr. Giddens became a high school teacher who helped her husband on the side, and he handled the practice while substitute teaching on occasion.

What made her such a good teacher? It wasn't that Dr. Giddens was a well-educated woman with an excellent grasp of her subject, although she was. Nor was it her ability to explain complex concepts in simple English, although she did that, too. What made her an exceptional teacher was her interest in and knowledge of her students.

Let me give you a rather unusual example.

I was a shy, insecure high school freshman with neither athletic ability nor good looks. I did have friends, but I wasn't popular, and I wanted that desperately. The only thing I had going for me (or so I thought) was my brains, and brains aren't high on teenagers' lists of popularity qualifications. But since my grades were my only source of self-esteem, I worked hard in school. I needed to prove to myself that I could do something.

Algebra was easy for me. I willingly explained the homework to my classmates, but that wasn't enough to make me popular. So I would move my tests toward the edge of my desk and make sure that my arms didn't cover the answers.

And Dr. Giddens caught me.

That's when she proved how well she knew her students.

Most teachers would have simply given everyone involved--including me--an F on the test. But instead of flunking us, Dr. Giddens said something like, "The next time I catch you cheating, I will give Kay an automatic A."

That approach wouldn't work with many, or even most, students, but that's the point. Dr. Giddens didn't use a one-size-fits-all method to deal with cheating. She knew her students well enough to fit the punishment to the criminal.

And it worked. It may have been partly the embarrassment, but the main deterrent was the thought that I might get a grade I didn't deserve. And where is the pride in that?

Dr. Giddens knew how badly I wanted to earn my As, and she used that knowledge to stop the cheating. That's what made her such a good teacher.

And I never thanked her.

Do you have a teacher of the years who is still living? Then tell him or her while you still can.

Because we all like to know that we have made a difference.


Lisa Flick Twardzik said...

It was touching and very sentimental to read your post about my mother. I am the niece who came to live with Doc and Shula in 1972, and soon after, referred to them as “Mom and Dad.”

I now teach at Calumet High School in Michigan and continue to reflect on how my mother handled similar situations that I am encounter as a teacher. She made a great impact on many! While there were days where I wanted to hide from embarrassment because she was my mother wearing the witch hat or referencing topics in Sex Education class, I am very proud of her contribution to society and hope that someone somewhere has benefited from my efforts, too.

On behalf of our family, thank you for your appreciation of a great educator, Dr. Shula Giddens.

Anonymous said...

This is Rich Giddens the youngest son of Doc and Shula. I too have followed the foot steps of my mom and have been a high school teacher and now am an administrator at Cadillac Area Public Schools in lower Michigan for the past 24 years. I enjoyed reading your comments about mom. There is not a day that goes by and I don't think about her. She was an amazing woman for her time. It makes me proud to read what you had to say about her and I hope people who read this will take the time to thank a teacher that made a difference in their life. From all my sisters and brother thanks again for the kind thoughts you had of our mother, Dr. Shula Giddens

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