The importance of teachers

Darling daughter # 2, also known as The Perfect Jennifer, commented that she had the least  impressive career of all of my daughters.



I responded with true maternal tact,

“That’s a load of crap! You’re far more likely to make a difference in the world than any of them. Yes, it’s great that Ronda is making lots of money and has a flashy car, and we’re all proud of her that she won a couple of world titles – but how many people have you ever heard say their lives were changed by some fighter, or anybody, who they saw on TV? Maria is a terrific writer and it’s great that she’s been at ESPN for years, but almost never do you hear someone tell you about how important a sports writer was in their life. Almost EVERYBODY, though, can ten, twenty or even fifty years later mention a teacher who made a difference in their life. You hear all of the time about people who became writers, doctors, or yes, even statisticians, because that one teacher inspired them. YOU are in a position to change people’s lives and I know you do because I have seen your students and I have seen you teach.”

She said,

“That’s nice of you to say that.”

My brother, who after putting his own children through college, earned a Ph.D. in education and now teaches middle school mathematics was talking one day about his desire to have more of an impact on more students.

I told him,

“You never know. I’m sure if my first statistics professor remembered me at all – and I cannot imagine that he does – he would say I was one of the students he did not reach. It was a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class and I skipped every Friday to go to frat parties. Thirty-five years later, every time I teach about the Central Limit Theorem, I remember Dr. Spitznagel’s class, with all the very serious mathematics graduate students and one sometimes hungover 19-year-old senior in a halter top, who would be me. I’m sure Chris and Phyllis, the two math teachers who taught me Calculus and matrix algebra in high school despaired twice as much because I sometimes skipped class to smoke pot behind the school, but forty years later I still remember their names, how to find a derivative and the determinant of a matrix.”

He said,

“That’s nice of you to say.”

Although he did have to glare at me disapprovingly about the pot-smoking and drinking. He always was the perfect one in our family. I think Jennifer takes after him.

Both of them should know me better than to think I ever say anything just to be nice. It’s true. Teachers matter. Long after the latest hedge fund manager has retired to his tax shelter island with his fourth wife. Long after today’s greatest innovative disruptive start-up has collected $10 million in venture capital and then gone bankrupt. Long after we will have all forgotten David Brooks and his students at Yale who think that only the time you spend getting yourself higher SAT scores and more money is not time wasted. Long after we have forgotten all of them we will still remember the teachers who mattered.

The most interesting man in the world, or, at least, the most interesting man I ever met, is Dr. Carter Revard.  I took an independent study from him in 1978 in the last semester of my senior year at Washington University in St. Louis when it turned out that  I could not graduate without ever having taken an English course. Apparently, hating English is not a sufficient reason for them to waive the English requirement. Who knew? I was amazed by his breadth of knowledge. He commented that he tried to take a class on something every semester, since he was at the university and it was free.

While I never managed to do it every semester, I have tried to take one class a year. I took microbiology, matrix algebra, data mining, COBOL, cyberpsychology, Chicano Studies. Every now and then, I try to take a course in an area I know nothing about so I can relate better to my students who are taking multivariate statistics for the first time and thinking


I’m going to be teaching an online course this fall – for the first time since 1999. You can imagine how much online courses have changed since then! So, to try to better understand how my students will experience it, I decided to take a bunch of courses from code school. (It’s a site, )

So, even though Dr. Revard taught English which I absolutely hated, he made enough of an impression on me that I am still, 35 years after graduation, I’m trying to continue putting myself in my students’ place.

Teachers matter. Even to that kid who hates your subject and skips your class for frat parties.


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  1. It is very true, it was a High School Christian Ethics teacher who influenced my future and showed me my career path. No matter how many times I skipped class.

    It was also a teacher that influenced me to continue my career path. 🙂

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