Domestic Affairs

Reflections of a teacher on Teachers' Day

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-09-10 15:53
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I am celebrating Teachers' Day of China for the first time. In the US, we don't have a holiday to celebrate teachers, but I wish we did.

I taught for many years in high schools in California and I now teach in a law program at Tsinghua University, co-sponsored with Temple University in Philadelphia.

In reflecting about teaching, my thoughts are mostly about former students. I have very fond memories of students who accomplished great things, students who won national awards in psychology, for example.

Two of those students were honored with plaques from the President of the American Psychological Association while a third won the top prize for high school students at the Stanford University Undergraduate Psychology Conference.

But I am just as proud of students who I coached in mock trial competitions who never won anything. Those were shy students who were fearful to speak when they started and developed enormous confidence and poise as they learned to think (and speak) on their feet.

The best memories are probably of those students who did better than I expected, who worked just a little bit harder and got top grades on the nationally administered Advanced Placement psychology exam.

We had some whacky special assignments too. One year I had my seniors create awards for the worst college rejection letters they received, as a sort of therapeutic way for the students to deal with those rejections. We got some national publicity, but only one college called to complain, and the kids definitely had a good laugh.

On several other occasions, my students created parodies of famous psychological research and we exhibited their parodies at a college psychology conference.

As with many teachers, I also am grateful for those encounters with former students years after they graduated. Sometimes a former student will look me up and write to say how glad they were to have had me as a teacher. More often, I will run into a student at the supermarket or in a coffee shop and the student will say something nice about my class. Those are some of the moments that have made teaching such a privilege.

Then there are the regrets which. while fewer, are just as poignant. I remember the "wild" student who died in a high speed car chase with police shortly after he graduated. There were other students with whom I lost my temper. Those are the students to whom I wish I could go back and try a different approach.

There were the flubs too. Probably showing students the portion of the film "Woodstock" where the hippies were rolling around naked in the mud, with the school principal in the room, was a bad idea. Also, I probably should have reviewed the really graphic sexual opinion survey I gave to my psychology class one year, since I had two students in the class whose fathers were fundamentalist ministers.

I'm not sure many parents appreciated the "create a suicide poster" assignment I gave to my first US history class to demonstrate the power of advertising.

The toughest part of the job was saying goodbye at the end of the year, particularly with kids I had come to really like and respect. I'm happy to say that I wasn't the only one who cried sometimes, but I usually was.

Anyway, teaching has been a great honor and to any of my former students who happen to read this, thank you.

The author is a fellow at the Institute for Analytic Journalism and an adjunct professor at Tsinghua/Temple Law School LLM Program in Beijing.