COME BACK, MR. CHIPS! – Garry Armstrong

No more classes, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks!

The refrain will be familiar if you’re of a certain age. The end of another school year is imminent in the United States.

There are still final exams, prom plans and other rites of spring, but many students have already packed up their computers, iPads. Stored away their shoulder and back packs. They’re ready for summer and memories of the academic year are quickly becoming a blur.

While a number of students relegate the past year to computer trash bins, some teachers wonder if there’s any point to returning for another year. Many feel their courses are doomed for those trash bins before the next class or new year.

Those of us who remember wooden desks, ink wells, pens, pencils and composition books also recall at least a few teachers who made school interesting. They took us beyond dull text books to bring to life flesh and blood people, characters who were part of the past. If the teachers were really good — and some were — we could imagine ourselves living in those days, usually seen only in movies.

Marilyn 6th Grade class

I called one of my teachers Mr. Chips. He reminded me of the idealized teacher in the movie, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Mr. Rich was my Mr. Chips. He was my history teacher for several grades in elementary school. Mr. Rich would frequently have us close our text books. Then he would tell us stories about George Washington and Abe Lincoln’s struggles with other politicians and the news media. He shared stories about the Civil War, the Great Depression and the two World Wars as if we were sitting in our secret club house talking about sports and girls.

It was stuff I’ve never forgotten. Like the fictional Mr. Chips, Mr. Rich inspired me to read almost anything I could find about history. My grandfather, per Mr. Rich’s suggestion, filled me in on lots of first-hand historical events and the surrounding social climate. The early part of the 20th century became very real to me.

P.S. 35

Sadly, the time came for me to say goodbye to Mr. Rich. We were cutting the cord as I moved on the exciting new world of junior high school. I would return to see Mr. Rich several times over the intervening years. He never forgot me. He said I was one of his boys, part of his family. There was no underlying cynicism about those words when my world was still relatively young.

I would think about Mr. Rich often in the years to come. His words fueled my passion and curiosity for knowledge beyond books and newspapers. Mr. Rich was with me as I pursued my career as a radio and TV news reporter. When I was praised for my diligence in dealing with formidable establishment figures, it was really Mr. Rich whispering in my ear.

It never gets old.

A few years back, working as a substitute teacher, I was appalled at the lack of interest and knowledge in students. To be fair, the curriculum was less than interesting and the text books were very old. I dodged the usual fate of sub teachers and morphed into my engaging TV reporter character. Recalling Mr. Rich’s approach from long ago, I shared the story of the Pilgrims’ transatlantic voyage to young America. It was ripped from today’s headlines!

I spun a tale that could’ve been boat people trying to make it to U.S. soil from Cuba. Some of the pilgrims might have been aspiring baseball players, driven by the lure of free agency and the fabled streets of gold to be found in the new land. I whispered gossip about some of the folks aboard The Mayflower. I also told the students that descendants of those pilgrims try to cover up what happened. Just like TMZ. Mr. Rich would have been proud!

Alas, my sub efforts were not favorably received in some administrative quarters. But, to this day, former students stop me and thank me for getting them interested in history. That’s just from a handful of sub classes.

It’s sad to see young people with little interest in history today. Sadder still to see talented teachers give up in frustration and move elsewhere. Every time I watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips, I think of all the Mr. Riches in the world. I think of today’s young people and the generations to come.

Come back, Mr. Chips!

39 thoughts on “COME BACK, MR. CHIPS! – Garry Armstrong

  1. I guess I’m THAT age – yes I remember that ditty quite well. I had a few teachers that would fit into the Mr Chips role, in both science and history. Great post.

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  2. I’m sure there are still a few teachers who are like your Mr. Chips. I had one in HS. His real name was Mr. Conforti (sp), who would go to night school, become a lawyer, leave teaching, run for Congress and lose by a thin margin. I talked to him years later and he left because of teachers not being allowed the freedom to teach.

    But the false reform movement to fix the unbroken—well, it was unbroken before NCLB, Race to the Top and Common Core—public schools may have damaged a few parts of the system and, unfortunately, Washington DC isn’t done wrecking what’s left as these fakes who know little to nothing about kids and how they learn strive to take the joy out of teaching and learning and turn children into robots taught by robots after they test them to misery.

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    • Lots of food for thought, Lloyd. I agree there are a number of Mr. and Ms. Chips out there. But I think they are an endangered species. I fear technology is a good-bad cop in the scenario. My wife and I have tried our best with our granddaughter but our efforts appear to be futile. Still, we’re not quite ready to give up on her yet. She’ll be 18 in September. I’m one of those suckers for happy endings.

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  3. My fourth grade teacher Mrs. Forest was my teacher who brought things to life. I really didn’t have any teacher beyond that age that got me interested in anything. I wish I had your Mr. Rich or you as a teacher. My history in southern Calif public schools was totally pathetic. I’ve learned more from TV documentaries and historical shows and movies than anything. Reading has never been my thing.

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    • Good teachers are painfully rare. I can still remember all of the good ones, from elementary school through college. I can count them on the fingers of one hand. BUT. They made a HUGE difference to me. Huge.

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    • It was worse in college than it had been in high school. I got lucky in high school with a couple of teachers who were enthusiastic about the subject. In college, I had drones. Fortunately, by then, I already was reading history for pleasure and could blow through exams and never had to crack a textbook. If that had been my introduction to history though, I doubt I’d love it.

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  4. My history teacher at secondary school had us act out some historical scenes which was fun. I had a crush on her too which helped engage me in the subject 🙂

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    • I had a crush on my 11th grade (third year of high school) English teacher. He taught us linguistics and I wanted him to like me so much, I did something that was entirely against my principles.

      I studied.

      Note: I didn’t study in high school because I didn’t have to. I also didn’t have to do much in college. It was always kind of easy — unless there were numbers. Then all bets were off.

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  5. As I’ve been reading the comments here I sensed that a few of them might reflect a wider bias that some people expect teachers to all be the equal to—for instance—Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, or Sandra Bullock.

    Anyone who judges teachers against the greatest actors or comedians of our time please give teachers a break.

    There are almost four million public school teachers and only a small number of great actors and comedians.

    How can anyone expect almost four million teachers to be the equal of them so that every child will be entertained in the classroom all the time?

    What I’m saying is to stop judging teachers as boring because they don’t measure up to your favorite film actors or comedians. And count it as a bonus and a blessing when you the rare teacher who may hold their own against the few greatest actors and comedians of our time.

    If every teacher was the equal of the greatest actors and comedians of our time, why would they want to be teachers?

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    • I certainly have never done that and I doubt Garry has either. We were just grateful for any teacher that took an interest in the subject and us! But seriously, I’ve had too many teachers — more in college than anywhere else — who droned on, reading from the textbook. How could they NOT expect us to fall asleep? I have taught too. Worse, I taught adult NIGHT courses, so my students were already very tired from a long day at work … and now, it’s 9PM and they are trying to learn. I felt more than half my job was to be interesting enough to help them at least stay awake. In this case, I don’t think the problem is being overly judgmental. I think there are too many teachers who are — for whatever reason — tired. Beaten by the system. Who knows what is/was going on in their personal lives … but inspiring students or even trying to inspire them was not on their agenda.

      It doesn’t take that much to inspire me. I am easily inspired. The bar for inspiration is set low because I love to learn. Anyone who could bore me into a coma really isn’t making an effort.

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      • I don’t think everyone might be expecting teachers to measure up to the greatest actors and comedians but some do—maybe to many—and I think the fake education reformers take advantage of this bias to criticize teachers while infering that all we ahve to do is find great teachers to repalce them.

        Spare me. Imagine finding almost 4 million teachers who would all inspire and entertain as if they were on stage or in front of a camera.

        As for me, teaching was an exhausting job. I paid close attention to my students and was on my feet most of the day moving around modulating my voice to keep their attention, switching strategies and lessons every fifteen to twenty minutes to engage their short attempting spans that come from watching to much TV. And if I noticed too many drifting away, I’d pull out the shock factor to grab their attention and then focus them on the lesson again.

        But there’s no way any teacher can please every student. No matter how hard we try. For instance, I had students who accused me of being boring but others who stayed alert, engaged and earned good grades. In fact, there were always a few parents who showed up on parent conference night who blamed their child’s failure because their kids told them I was boring. It seems that once the world “boring” was mentioned at home, the teacher was always the evil one to those parents.

        I wonder if there are any college programs that credential teachers that have classes on how teachers can keep the attention of students who may be programed to expect to be entertained all the time. Besides knowing our subject area and what methods work best to teach, do we have to be comedians and dramatic actors too?

        I told our daughter at an early age that it didn’t matter how boring a teacher or subject was, she was still expected to do her best to learn what was being taught. I told her a boring teacher was no excuse for not learning and she never complained about boring teachers at home. Her GPA from 3rd grade to high school graduation was driven by straight As and she ended up with a 4.65 GPA out of high school due to Honors and AP classes. I’m sure she had some ‘boring’ teachers who were not incompetent but that never stopped her from learning.

        But once a parent lets their children know that a “boring” teacher is an excuse not to learn, then a Pandora’s Box has been opened and the monster has been let out. For this reason, I think we should value the few rare teachers who ignited a passion for learning but not condemn those who don’t. The passion for learning should be the responsibility of the parents first and that should start at birth and never let up.

        Just because a child thinks a teacher is boring doesn’t mean that teacher is incompetent.

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        • I’m not expecting and never expected a song and dance routine, but I did and DO expect better than someone sitting in a desk chair reading the textbook in a monotone. That’s not good enough.

          I never considered not doing the best I could in a course because the teacher was dull, but it really helped if the teacher made an effort — even the smallest effort — to engage with his/her students. There really ARE bad teachers and while they aren’t an excuse for not doing the work, they turn off students who might have been interested. Don’t argue that the quality of teachers has nothing to do with the quality of education. It does and always will.

          Teachers are also good at making up excuses for not doing a good job. Education is a two-way street.

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          • I agree and I never did that and I can’t remember any of my teachers K to 12 who did that. All of my images of my public school teachers were of them on their feet and moving around. I don’t remember ever having a teacher who squatted behind their desk and never moved. Although I’ve seen that in enough films designed to show teachers as boring and incompetent.

            But I had one professor at Cal Poly, Pomona who did exactly as you described and I dropped the class the second day. It wasn’t needed for my MFA. He didn’t even look at us as he droned on. He stared at his feet.

            It was an elective that sounded interesting but that Professor was evidently burned out and/or brain dead for some reason. Maybe he was coming down from a drug high or was going through a divorce.

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            • Ironically, it was entirely in college that I bumped into the drones. Usually I dropped the course, but sometimes, it was a requirement and I had to deal with it. The hardest thing was when their class was early in the morning when I was sleepy anyhow (it was before I discovered magical coffee!). I used to try everything I could think of to not fall asleep. It’s so embarrassing to have your head fall and whack the desk. And it wakes up the other sleepers too.

              My high school and elementary school teachers at least tried. Some succeeded better than others, but all of them made an effort. Even in junior high, they tried and I had a couple of wonderful teachers in high school — really inspiring guys.

              College though. There were the ones who could have just sent their tape recorder. They either read from the book or recited long memorized lessons. Worse, I was paying to listen to them.

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              • After I went through teacher training (1975-76) and a year as a full-time, paid intern (it wasn’t much but it was something) in a 5th grade classroom with a master teacher guiding me step by step, I looked back and thought: “College professors could use the same training that public school teachers go through to find out how to teach and make a real attempt at keeping the students attention.”

                I don’t think college professors have any training in teaching or how kids or adults learn. They prove they are a superior scholar (this means writing scholarly papers or books and getting them published) and get a job as a professor to teach adults with no idea how to teach. Most of them probably don’t even think that teaching is a skill, an art that one must never stop learning. To me, most college professors are similar to a fire hose and when class starts they open the valve and let the water (information) gush.

                For public school teachers, at least in California, teachers never stop learning new teaching methods aligned with how kids learn.

                My memories of college are the endless lectures and dozens of pages of hastely scribbled notes that were written so fast I had trouble reading them later. The average lecturer would stroll back and forth on a stage talking as fast as possible then near the end of the class, they’d assign the usual 100 page reading homework before the next lecture. My best years were when I was in my last two years focusing on journalism and there was very little lecture in that major and lots of writing.

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                • I had one professor in college who changed my life, taught me how to think and how to write a paper properly. How to present information clearly. Basically, he gave me my career. He also gave me a lifelong passion for philosophy and religion as an area of study. There were several other good ones, but he was the only great one.

                  Sadly, I think you are pretty spot on. There ARE some great teachers in colleges, but too profs have no interest in teaching. They are researchers or authors — teaching is part of the deal, so they do it. But with no enthusiasm or creativity. Considering the insanely high cost of higher education, it would be nice if teaching students was more the priority than publication.

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                  • I was fortunate with my BA journalism major through CSU Fresno. The journalism staff had all worked in the media some for decades before retiring and then moving over to university academics to teach the field of journalism they worked in. Those two years were filled with great classes and professors who knew what we needed and gave it to us in spades. That time flew and was over way too fast. Needless to say, my GPA for those two years was the highest of my 9 years of college.

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  6. Wow! that photo looks like every class photo we all took no mater where or what school. I could swear I knew a couple of people in that class.., other than Marilyn, that is.

    My most memorable history teacher was for World History at Hempstead High. Miss Abbott, a single woman, with an infectious smile, who would joke about us finding her an eligible bachelor, or “do any of you have an uncle or grandfather not doing anything this weekend” we instantly loved her. Then to top it off, she would tell us little slightly racey stories about the persons of interest we were required to learn about and memorize. Needless to say, no one failed miss Abbott’s World History class as none of us could forget those asides. Even the least interested, or attentive, kids were mesmerized by her unique approach to, what was usually thought of as, a boring subject.

    I shall always miss her.

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    • We did all look alike. And I think the same photographer took all the pictures. And the schools all looked the same too. Same plans with minor modifications? We even had the same “decorations” on the buildings. Same windows. Desks. I swear, the same teachers, too.

      I had two teachers in High School who helped me and really influenced me. Oddly, one of them was a physics professor. He couldn’t teach me physics (no one could) but he taught me to find science fascinating.

      Here’s to all those dedicated teachers who loved teaching!

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