A landmark new research paper underscores that the difference between a strong teacher and a weak teacher lasts a lifetime. Having a good fourth-grade teacher makes a student 1.25 percent more likely to go to college, the research suggests, and 1.25 percent less likely to get pregnant as a teenager. Each of the students will go on as an adult to earn, on average, $25,000 more over a lifetime.”

— Nicholas Kristof, New York Times,

January 11, 2012


In an article that’s gotten a lot of attention, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lets us know that good teachers are very important to our kids. Having been a teacher for more than 25 years (though this was in college, where damage from bad teachers has already been done), I absolutely concur. But I will say this: I had a pretty terrible teacher in the fourth grade, and yet I did not get pregnant as a teenager or even in my 20s and 30s.

What sticks in my mind from elementary school, aside from this really cute girl I had a crush on in the second grade, is not the great teachers I had but the bad ones, and, believe me, “bad” is a euphemism. Crazy is more like it.


In fact, let’s start with that fourth grade teacher, who I will not identify by name, even though I suspect she has been dead for years. After all, I think she was at least 50 years old when I had her — back in the 1951-52 school year. Of course, back then every adult looked like they were at least 50. Looking back now, my heart goes out to the person I’ll call Mrs. Wolin. The Korean War was going on, and her son was there. He was a paratrooper, she told us, trying to elicit our concern.

But we were fourth graders. I was nine years old. All I could picture was a guy jumping out of airplanes, and that sounded like fun.

But understandably for me now as an adult, at least chronologically speaking, Mrs. Wolin was worried about her son. This came out most strongly when we did the Pledge of Allegiance, and, like any group of nine-year-olds we, at least the boys, occasionally would titter. It was then that she would yell at us:

“Our boys are dying over there in Korea and you’re laughing?!”

We would then try to be serious, which would, of course, just get us to laugh more.

And then Mrs. Wolin would scream at us.

I don’t know about today, but back then, teachers did scream. In addition to Mrs. Wolin, who didn’t do it all that often or that loud, there was the notorious Mrs. Cohen, who you could often hear screaming her lungs out as you walked down the hall. No wonder they eventually started putting all the boys on Ritalin. It was either that or a bunch of teachers going out of their minds.

Another memory I have of Mrs. Wolin is that she didn’t like boys to put their hands in their pockets. I mean she really didn’t like it. Looking back now I think I know what she was worried about, but, believe me, what she was worried about I was not doing — well, not in school, anyway. I guess I had my hands in my pockets a lot. Maybe they were cold. Maybe I was doing it so I wouldn’t bite my nails. I don’t know.

What I do know is that Mrs. Wolin sent a letter home to my mother insisting that she sew up my pants pockets so I couldn’t put my hands in them.

My mother was not a perfect mother, but rather the flawed human being we all are — which we finally realize about our parents after years of therapy or when we raise our own ungrateful little brats. But my mom came through way back there in the early 1950s. She absolutely refused to sew my pockets shut.

A question could be asked: What was Mrs. Wolin doing in a classroom? And, in fact, that question could be asked of quite a few of the teachers I had in elementary school and beyond. But don’t ask it about Miss Rubin, who we had as a substitute for a couple of months when I was in third grade. That girl in the second grade was nothing compared to Miss Rubin, who was young and blonde, and who we boys would have described as a “hottie,” if that word had been available back then.

On the other hand, today I wonder if even Miss Rubin should have been teaching eight-year-old boys. When the regular teacher was about to come back, Miss Rubin threw a party on her last day, and I knew that she was going to hug and kiss all of us. I was beside myself with excitement, but nervous too. In fact, my head began to swim, and wound up telling Miss Rubin I didn’t feel well; she took me to the principle’s office, where they called my mom to pick me up. As soon as they told me my mom was coming, I felt better, and I started thinking about Miss Rubin kissing me, and I said, “I don’t want to go home!”

But it was too late.

I never got that kiss from Miss Rubin, who, for all I know, would be arrested today for stirring up boys. But I’m a grown man now, Miss Rubin, so if you are reading this, you can reach me via this paper. I’m sure my wife would understand if you could give me that kiss I missed out on some 61 years ago.