TOADTalk: Three Lessons I Have Learned About Teaching from the Meyers

“We are all, always, each and every one of us, teaching,“ was the first of three lessons Iona Popa CdeP 2010 shared in her tribute to Alice and Kurt Meyer, who will be leaving the School next year after 35 years of service.
Last week, the schedule for All-School Assemblies was different from the usual schedule. Normally, the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) addresses the community on Monday. Instead, our most recent TOADTalk was pushed to Friday. Iona Popa CdeP 2010, who returned to Thacher as an English and Latin teacher in 2017, spoke about what she has learned from the Meyers, Kurt and Alice, her high school teachers and now, her colleagues. It is a moving tribute to a couple who have dedicated 35 years to our School.

Last year, I shared three lessons I’d learned about love, and this year I’m going to share three lessons I’ve learned about teaching. Specifically, I’m going to share three lessons I’ve learned from the Meyers. It’s hard to enumerate and articulate the ways in which they have contributed to the fact that I am standing here, at Thacher, in love with my job, but as a tribute to them in their last year of formal teaching, I’m going to try.

Ok, here’s the first lesson: We are all, always, each and every one of us, teaching.
I was lucky enough to camp with both of the Meyers, at the same time. It was only a weekend excursion to Montana de Oro, but we brought horses so we could explore the trails and gallop along the beach. And honestly, I think I learned more from watching Mr. Meyer pack up the trailer and work with the horses than I did from some of the books I read in English class. (No offense to The Odyssey.) I noticed how meticulous and gentle he was with them—how precise and unhurried. That’s how he is with people too. Classic math teacher, with a total reverence for the details. Just from watching him, I learned how important it is to do the small things right, and that maybe in the end, that there are no small things.

The same is true about Ms. Meyer of course—I’ll watch her do things, and without thinking about it, she is teaching. Not about psychology, but about how to be a strong female leader, how to maintain both killer efficiency and a kind heart.

And when you get the Meyers together? That’s where the real magic happens. There are few things I love more than seeing the Meyers together—they joke and tease one another relentlessly, especially in faculty meetings, but seeing them leisurely walk away from assembly last week, hand in hand, it was clear that the mutual respect and affection they have for one another is the truest kind of love. (We’ll get there someday, Tyler.)

Again, we are all always teaching. Herein lies a responsibility. I love thinking about the fact that it’s not actually about whether you’ll change the world. You will. We all do. The real question is, will you change it for the better? Be your best selves, all the time, because you are all teaching by example. This is part of why I landed back at boarding school, because I think it’s beautifully profound that we all are called to teach one another, every day, by who we are. The classroom is only the tip of the iceberg.
 
Ok, second lesson: Great teaching does not merely recognize brilliance, it draws it out where before, there was only the potential for it.
Many students struggle in Mr. Meyer's classes, and I was most definitely not an exception. I came from a small school that didn’t have an accelerated math program, but I tested well and found myself in Math III. Needless to say, in over my head. I received this comment midway through freshmen year,
“Iona's midterm test was quite weak, and just as telling, her first round of corrections on that test repeated a great many of the errors she made on the initial test. As she and I went over her corrections, it became clear that she was writing symbols that she didn't even understand.”(Great. Really promising.) “It may be that Iona would be better served in Math 2. She and I have discussed this; it is a decision we should settle soon.”
Pretty ominous, right? Thankfully, he sandwiched that heartbreaker between two positive comments—apparently, I was also a “talented young lady” and “such a great worker.” Thanks Kurt. But I knew a great teacher when I saw one, and the failed tests were worth the struggle, even when they were so bad that the top of the test just said “see me.”

I was definitely not brilliant when I walked into Math III, but with endless hours spent in the math office, correcting my corrections, and with a newly kindled appreciation for the philosophical complexity of math (was it discovered or invented, perhaps as a torture device?), I went on to thrive in Calculus, and my 5’s on those AP tests mattered more to me than the ones on subjects I was more passionate about.

One of my favorite quotes is: "There is more in you than you know, and if you're made to see it, you'll never settle for less." Mr. Meyer and his class exemplified the best of that statement in so many ways. It’s easy and fun to work with people who are already brilliant; but great teaching occurs when you have faith in someone’s potential to become more than they currently are. You see the potential for greatness, and you inspire them to draw it out of themselves. So remembering that you are all teachers, be patient with your friends, see their potential greatness. Inspire them to draw it out, even when—and especially when—their corrections need correcting. If you need, help, see Mr. Meyer, as I’m very much still working on this.
 
Ok, the final lesson: At the heart of great teaching is love, and at the heart of love, is service to others.
Maybe you all know this, but I learned it on that camping trip: Ms. Meyer used to specialize in kindergarteners. She ran two preschool/elementary schools, including Monica Ros. Then, she was a truly legendary dorm head of Los Padres. (Maybe it wasn’t that different, who knows?) Then she worked with freshmen boys. She also loves her senior psych students and advising sophomore girls. What’s the moral of this story? The reason she can be so successful in all these different contexts is because the most important aspect of teaching is taken care of, deep in her DNA—she loves working with young people. She truly loves us all (as the youngest faculty member and her former student, humor me: I’m counting myself among the young people). She seems to have deep insight into what it is that young people need from adults, and it brings her joy to care about us all in this way.

Mr. Meyer is the same—even the Thacher pigs are loved and served (that is, before they get slaughtered). Have you seen their new pen? A total labor of love (with the help of Eric and Wesley). As a student, it was always clear that we mattered deeply to him. He had endless hours to give, and that wry smile never faded.
 
35 years. They came in 1984. They’ve served our community for 35 years, and been teachers longer than that. They’ve seen thousands of students in their time, and more than six thousand school days. You think you’ve been going to school for a long time? They’ve been teaching for three times as long. The numbers aren’t the whole story, but they are staggering. On top of that, the Meyers don’t ever do the minimum—they’ve packed the years and their plates full, and it feels like we might have to hire five people to cover all their collective responsibilities on campus.
 
Sometimes I wonder how a world exists in which both the Meyers and I have the same title: "Teacher," because I have only just begun the journey that they are now completing. But what brought me back to Thacher was the realization that we are all called to be great teachers, and the fact that people like the Meyers and students like yourselves inspire me to answer that call every day. (Except holidays. Speaking of which…Just kidding…).
 
In these and other tough times, I look to them, as reminders about all that is possible in the relationship between student and teacher. And often we teachers are the students. For instance, Joy Mathebula has shown me things about the power of the written word that have left me speechless and inspired me to try to conquer my fear of creative writing. Last week, Andrea Viera spent 40 minutes during study hall teaching me how to crochet little hearts in the Project Studio. I always learn something from watching Libby Galgon pour her whole heart and soul into an athletic contest. We are all teachers, and maybe we’ll even be great teachers someday. Inspired by the Meyers, let’s check in about that in 35 years. I see the potential greatness in all of you. Find it, and draw it out.
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