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Born to Teach
Influences on my career and personal development

By Margaret Ann Shirley '84G

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I'm a teacher. Since the day I was born I've been a teacher. Not only might I have come out of the womb singing on key because of my inherent musical talent, but had I been able to talk, I might have instructed Dr. McCollough and the attendant nurses how to improve their birthing techniques.

The first time I recall being a teacher in a formal learning situation occurred in second grade when I tried to teach my friend, Ellen, how to play the piano. I taught her what I knew by keeping her one lesson behind me in my red-and-white John Thompson's Piano Book for Beginners—that is, what I learned from Mrs. Putnam on Tuesday, I taught Ellen the following Saturday. Although my mother paid my teacher $2 for a one-hour lesson, I charged Ellen only 5 cents for a half-hour lesson because she was poor and I was inexperienced. I was alternately authoritative in my methods, exasperated by her failure to practice on our church piano in between lessons, and exhilarated when she learned a simple legato fingering or a triad.

As I reconstruct our lessons in my head, I see both of us sitting on my piano bench, brown-pigtailed, wearing light pastel, flowered cotton dresses with large sashes tied in back, but I can't visualize us in winter clothes, so I imaging we began in the fall soon after I started taking lessons and stopped well before Thanksgiving. Ellen probably ran out of nickels, and I suspect I grew short of patience.

I had a need, then, to share what I knew, to be a teacher as well as a student. That need has not diminished in the intervening 45 years.

If my primary need is to share what I know, even in informal situations, like explaining the entire punctuation system to my daughter when all she wants to know is whether or not she should use a comma or a semi-colon after a dependent clause, then my secondary need, nearly as strong as my first, is the need to improve both myself and others as teachers and learners. Teaching composition to college students provides a legitimate outlet for this arrogant activity of mine. For example, I finally figured out—after weeks of trying one way and then another—how to explain to my students the meaning of "focus," as it applies to writing. One day I held up a new pencil with a sharp point, a long shaft, and an unused eraser, and asked, "What is the focus of this object; what part makes it useful as a tool or useless if it's missing?" They concluded, after some discussion of the parts as they relate to the whole, that the point is the focus of the pencil. In turn, I compared point-of-pencil to focus-of-weekly-papers, and I saw mental light bulbs turn on all through the room. As a result, I knew I had improved as a teacher while I helped my students improve as writers and thinkers.

Even though my third need is not as strong as my other needs to share and to improve, one more must be mentioned because I believe all successful teachers possess it to one degree or another. I have a need to perform before an audience. When I stand in front of the blackboard in Room 103 of Morrill Hall and declaim to my captive audience, "Find a focus; cut the clutter; explain with examples," I satisfy my thespian desire to stand center-stage, bathed In the pinks and blues of the footlights, receiving the admiration of my appreciative fans. Indeed, when I get a laugh, I have an inkling of what it's like to be Bill Cosby, and I am satisfied.

As for my teaching heroes, I think of Mrs. Denney, my sixth grade teacher, who taught me, by example, to ask a question and then wait for an answer, and if none is forthcoming or if it is wrong, to ask a different way, wait again, and finally, if necessary, to guide the responder who is closest to the mark. One day in a science lesson, she asked us why an animal swallows a bird head first. Silence. She waiting and then rephrased her question. More silence, more waiting, until Alex, not normally among the top-ten students, tentatively suggested that maybe the animal wants to bit off the bird's feet and let them drop to the ground because they don't taste good. Mrs. Denney said no, but she gently pushed and prodded Alex until he answered, correctly, that the animal wants the bird's feathers to slide down its throat in the same direction they grow, from head to tail.

I still see Alex puffed up with justifiable pride, and I still feel my chagrin as being bested by a boy in the academic arena, but I also remember learning to be a patient teacher.

Forty years later, in 1984, a different kind of person played a prominent part in my teaching life. Les Fisher, Professor of English composition and American Studies at UNH, taught me to demand and accept from my students nothing less than excellence, and he taught me to be tough but fair. He taught me to think skeptically, to ask "so what?" "what cares?" "what do you mean?" "how do you know?" "who says?" and "why not?" I spent most of our four hours a week in English 810, Teaching Writing, saying to myself: I want to be a teacher like Les Fisher. Now when I teach, I often hear his words coming through my voice. Last week, I admonished my students, "Ask yourself when you sit down to write, 'Do I have anything to say, and who cares whether or not I say it?'" The words belong to Les; I'm merely the transmitter, carrying the message abroad. I share with my students what I've learned from my teachers.

Margaret Ann Shirley '84G earned a Master of Science in Teaching English at UNH. Eleven years after retiring as an instructor in writing from UNH, she still keeps in touch with many of her former students.

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