The news this week of the passing of a great high school teacher, circa 1970, with a significant effect on many past pupils, had me reflecting on my memories of Alf Brooks and pondering what was the essence that made him a great teacher.
“Mr.Brooks” was principal of the Virden Collegiate Institute high school in Manitoba Canada until 1970 when he stepped down to spend the rest of his teaching career as a regular teacher. He had a profound effect on many students, from what I could observe, possessed a gift that eludes many (but by no means all) teachers.
My personal experience was not particularly close with Alf. In 1971 when I became President of the Student Council, Alf had stepped aside as Principal (pretty graciously from what I could see) and most of my dealings were with a new Principal, Mr. Kawchuk, a decent, well meaning fellow and we got on fine. Yet Mr. Kawchuk did not have the “presence” or influence on students that Alf had, even after he was no longer principal. I recall wondering why that was so, even though I had no answer at the time as I had too many other crazy teenage things to occupy my mind.
There was something about Alf, something I still struggle to put my finger on and articulate. Here is one clue though that opened my mind about three years ago. Alf entered the social media of Facebook and we became “Friends”. I don’t recall who requested who and it really doesn’t matter. However, when we connected as FB Friends, he wrote me a personal note, giving me a very brief update of his life and move to Winnipeg, but passionately wanted me to provide an update on my journey in life, which I gave him and for which he expressed gratitude. And that was the key. He cared about his former students, how they had progressed, perhaps curious if his work amounted to anything in the long run……and no doubt it had. Alf had many students who went on to successful lives on various levels, with his help.
Now going back to 1970. Alf seemed to have a certain “emotional intelligence” and that is what attracted the awe from students to listen to him in an influential way. He seemed to “get” the kids. We were simultaneously uneasy with his authority, but at the same time comfortable that he understood us……..and many years later, I fully realize that he really cared about us.
I was a student in one of his classes….Grade 12 English perhaps. It was a good class, unremarkable in many ways, yet I recall trying to hang on to his every word. What a gift of “connection” he had!
This is a gift I believe many teachers can develop, even when it is not innate. It starts with a completely genuine care for the progress of their students, a care and respect for them as persons, even when at home or elsewhere they may be getting treated otherwise.
You were a good one Mr. Brooks. There are others following your steps today!