The fiery, life-of-the-mind, maverick teacher is an American archetype: the mercurial, off-script renegade in perpetual hot water with the administration, flouting curricula, crossing lines of propriety, working blue, going taboo, always fired up, often fired.
Science has its own great teacher myths. The one that I am talking about is usually in English, always humanities. They may not have primed you for your exit exams quite as well as the state would have hoped. In the more gritty and realist variations of the story, they may not have done well by every student in the class, or even a majority. Their patience for the herding of disinterested captives toward demonstrable competence was thin to begin with, and the role is not without a share of contradiction and hypocrisy.
But if you wanted it, this teacher was the match to the fuse of your creative mind (and if you didn’t want it, get thee to the insurance industry already). This was the cult leader, the poet, the minister of the arts, the outside the box thinker, the agitator, the game changer.
Many think this figure is being programmed out of schools — even colleges — as teachers are more and more defined as quantified curriculum delivery systems with a vanishing margin for play, beholden to institutional standards, regulated more acutely that ever before by non-teaching designers of curricula and testing.
I can see it both ways. It is not wrong, exactly, for an institution to work towards quality control and some consistency across programs. And it is not right, exactly, for teaching to become the pursuit of a cult of personality. if there is no natural star in a school, the students will typically appoint one. Some schmoe steps into the romantic vocation because the slot needs to be filled. Students are going to insist on feeling that way about at least one of their teachers.
So how you feel about the maverick, life-of-mind pedagogue really depends on the quality of the one or two whom you had. The “great-mind” model of education worked pretty well for me as a student, but a little less well as a teacher.