Do an internet search under the topic, “What makes a great teacher” and you will be flooded with opinions. The criteria range from an oversimplified checklist of behaviors to the esoteric musings of a professor emeritus of literature. My book, Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow examines this issue, among others, and puts one teacher’s profound and controversial style on display. The central educational question the book proposes is whether or not there exists such a thing as “The Great Teacher.”

My fellow students at Horace Greeley High School were all too aware of Edwin Barlow’s fearsome reputation. He taught basic algebra and Advanced Placement Calculus when I attended the school. He was a short, oddly built man with a round torso who walked with a slight limp. His disproportionately short limbs give his head a more imposing appearance, characterized by an unusually broad forehead, framed by a long, brushed-back silver mane—such that the midpoint of his face was at the eyebrow line. He shuffled through campus, his somnambulistic stare fixed straight ahead. There were myths and legends concerning every aspect of his life – that he’d fought in three wars, lost his family in a car fire, that Alice in Wonderland contained his complete philosophy of education, and that he lived in the school basement. No matter how much students were roughhousing, they always cut a wide swath for Mister Barlow.

What most frightened students, however, was his inimitable, profound, and controversial classroom style. He would sit at his desk in the back of the room, and direct students to the board, where they would write and solve problems as directed. For lapses of any kind – looking out the window, not having both feet on the floor, yawning, scratching an itch, making a mental error while solving a problem, leaving behind a piece of stray paper on the floor, or the cardinal sin of not paying attention – Mister Barlow would lay into us. His verbal disembowelments, delivered in a deep and booming voice with perfectly enunciated syllables, had the power to propel one through the blackboard into the adjacent classroom. Alternatively, the sheer heat from his blistering criticism could easily melt a student away not unlike the Nazis at the conclusion of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

He would assail our intellectual laziness, our lack of attention, our provincial manners, our disrespect for him or the subject, and if one were especially liked, we would be called a “clod,” “vegetable,” or “moron.” Sometimes these rages were genuine and deserved. Other times, his attacks were delivered with an edge of dry humor. Some students got the joke. Others didn’t.

Now, you may read this and wonder, “how on earth could this man be considered a great teacher?” How could a man like this become Teacher of the Year? I could point to a few facts: that he lifted “C” and “D” students into the “B” range, while simultaneously refining the intellects of the “A” students; that he won the school’s Teacher of the Year Award every year from its inception until his death; that polls showed 80% of his students not only liked, but revered him; and that he remains a legend to this day.

I imagine, however, that the same could be said of many other teachers.

So where does that leave us on our central question – is there such a thing as “the great teacher”? We must dig deeper, to the subtext of his style. That is where the real lessons lie for all teachers. It is not one’s style that matters, but what lies behind it.

In the simplest of terms, Mister Barlow was merely playing the odds with his approach. If a student didn’t find a subject interesting, he never would. Mister Barlow, however, decided to motivate these students, and his style accomplished that. In numerous administrative reviews, as well as thank-you letters from parents, the most common compliment paid was that Mister Barlow got kids interested in math when they previously had not been.

What of those students who were already motivated, and enjoyed math? He figured they wouldn’t change, and wouldn’t be put off the subject by his approach. They were, after all, the ones most frequently called to the board, allowing them to demonstrate their intelligence and build their confidence.

Yet Mister Barlow’s wisdom went deeper than just skewing his approach in favor of the odds. Teachers face unique challenges in every class. We cannot be all things to all students. Our individual personalities and methods will not always reach even the best students, much less the intellectually deficient. Teachers in wealthy areas will face different challenges than those struggling in the South Bronx. Any number of other variables will affect a teacher’s day-to-day situation: administrative issues, budget issues, weather, gender ratio, your health, the students’ health, their interest in the subject, your personal struggles – the list goes on and on.

Mister Barlow negated all of these variables. To any student entering his class, his reputation preceded him. His expectations were already known, and the subtext of his behavior communicated two critical things to students:

1) His classes were not invitations to learn, but command performances.

2) At a time in their lives when young people feel body and image are all that matters, he demanded that they respect their minds.

You can make up all the checklists you want. You can take advice from your mentors. You can ruminate on educational philosophy until the cows come home. At the end of the day, however, I believe that what lies behind one’s teaching style is what matters. And what must lie behind it are, at a minimum, the two above-mentioned principles.

How you accomplish this is where you face your greatest challenge as a teacher.

So I do not believe in “The Great Teacher.” I subscribe to the words of my former vice-principal, Larry Breen, who said, “I believe in the right teacher at the right time, at the right place. Because if you took our faculty from this wealthy neighborhood, which supposedly has a lot of great teachers in it, and you dropped them in the poor neighborhood twenty minutes away, you’d find that a lot of the ‘great teachers’ are not great teachers.”

There is much more to Mister Barlow’s story that tells how and why he came to these methods. Teacher of the Year: The Mystery and Legacy of Edwin Barlow relates the story of how this unique and extraordinary man became one of New York’s most admired instructors.

I hope you’ll visit to learn more.

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