I have had many great teachers. I have had many good teachers. I have had many bad teachers.
Students, and I was one of them, often make the mistake of believing that a bad teacher is also a bad person. I believe this is related to the teacher’s power. A teacher issues a grade, which can affect the student’s future educational and professional prospects. A teacher can grant or withhold approval, which can affect the student’s sense of himself. If the teacher does not effectively teach algebra, the student does not learn algebra and then he does poorly on a test. The student believes he has suffered an injustice. He was never provided the tools to do well by the person who was supposed to give him those tools. And now that same person shirks his own irresponsibility and punishes the student for not having those tools.
Students, and I was one of them, often make the mistake of believing that a great teacher is also a great person. This is the teacher that connects with the student in extraordinary ways, who changes that student’s view of the world. This is a teacher who helps a student who believes he is incompetent realize that he's actually smart. The student does not know that such a teacher may be a terrible father, that the love he grants his student is the love he denies his own family. The student also does not know that the generosity a teacher grants all his students may manifest itself as abuse in particular cases. (Think of the Philip Seymour Hoffman character in Doubt, although it can be much less extreme than that.)
I think this is why it affects us so much when we learn of a teacher’s death, even those teachers of whom we don’t think all that much. Throughout your childhood, into your pre-adolescence and then adolescence, you are constantly developing a sense of morality, a sense of decency and of professionalism, and your teachers are the most available examples, outside of your parents, of how one is supposed to conduct themselves through adulthood.
I had a chemistry teacher in high school. He was a bad teacher. He made fun of his students. He didn’t do much to teach chemistry. He ignored all the changes to the local school district’s curriculum over the previous ten years. He told all of us to get old tests from students from previous years, tests which were more or less the same as the ones he still gave. I’m not sure if that was cheating or not, but I don’t know any other teacher who would have suggested the same. Most of us followed his advice. (My high school was not a very ethical place.) I can also tell you that he was an entertaining character who goose-stepped through the classroom, wore a toupee, developed routines with all of his students. He always called me Don. I don’t know where it came from. He just liked getting my name wrong. And to be fair, he just smiled when I asked him one day why his forehead was so dirty. (It was Ash Wednesday.) He had a sick sense of humor. He used festive green and red colors when he graded before the Christmas vacation. If you failed a test then, he rubbed it in by wishing you a happy holiday.
He hated his job. He hated that classroom. He left school as soon as the final bell rang, out before any of the buses left the parking lot. He smoked cigars, which is probably what killed him two years after he retired.
Looking back, I can honestly say I learned more from him than I learned from most of my teachers. I'm not talking about his bad example, about how he represented everything you shouldn't do in life. I didn’t learn that you must love your job in order to live a full life. I didn’t learn that it’s foolish to wait until retirement to enjoy your life. He taught me, better than any other teacher, not to expect any justice in this world. He taught me the best way to deal with your own pain is not so much to laugh at it, but to cackle at any and everything. He taught me that no institution deserves your undying respect.