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Lessons Outside the Books

September 06, 2003

Every once in a great while in these weeks when millions of youngsters head back to class across the land, we stumble upon the story of one teacher who invested decades in preparing, say, seventh-graders for eighth grade and beyond.

Fred Alvarez's touching Monday article in The Times was such a tale. It concerned Eric Johansson, who'd spent 37 of his 59 years teaching history and geography at Somis School north of Camarillo. Former teaching colleagues and students, many of whom became teachers or were the grandchildren of previous students, were gathered for a bon voyage retirement party. There, they shared yarns of lessons and field trips and the gimmicks and trivia Mr. Johansson used to invisibly rivet information into supple young minds. It would seem those gimmicks worked. As one veteran once told an apprentice teacher, "Kids don't care what you know until they know you care."

Most people can look back on their lives and recall at least one teacher or coach who left an imprint. That teacher appeared to be talking just to you, even in a full classroom and even long years after school. Such teachers brought you articles on subjects you once mentioned, an amazing indication they were listening and then thinking of one student, even during vacation. They remembered your name and interests, even the next year. They commented on your acting or athletic exploits, which meant they'd seen the play or game. In short, they seemed to know an awful lot about individual students for a mere hired hand.

What's more, these dedicated teachers displayed full confidence that you could handle sixth grade, 11th grade, college and life beyond blue books, a confidence you perhaps began tentatively believing yourself.

Our often inattentive society leaves an awful lot to today's teachers, who must be police officers, drug monitors, counselors, mediators, therapists, etiquette instructors. Oh, and if there's time, they can also teach academic subjects. We're likely to see fewer Mr. Johanssons in the future; for about half of today's teachers, the average classroom career now spans only five years, less than one-seventh his classroom investment.

Now, there's a memorable lesson.

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