We all think of Socrates when we ask what makes a great teacher.
A great teacher is a leader, a mentor, someone who encourages life-long learning. A teacher’s objective is to make their students better than they are. A teacher does not have an ego, but has pride in putting out the best students, but pride does not prevent the assimilation of better ideas, whatever it takes to give the best to their students.
The greatest compliment a teacher can receive is years later when hearing from a former student that says “thanks, you prepared me for…and you made a difference in my life.” A good teacher may not even get great evaluations during or right after the conclusion of their course. As a matter of fact, they may come under criticism, especially in today’s environment where answers are always given and immediate results are sought, from students because the teacher is forcing them to think and discover.
The great teacher will always bend the rules, does not need supervision, objectives, purpose or strict lesson plans, the last thing they need is an inspection to critique their teaching methods and progress. They are likely a pain in the ass to bureaucratic administrators and supervisors because they cannot (or will not) be controlled through lesson plans and schedules. Anyway, when visitors come to observe, they have a hard time grasping what the teacher is doing to their students. They want to see someone lecturing on the platform.
A couple of people come to mind: my ROTC instructor Major Stanley Piet and my father Virgil Vandergriff.
One of my role models was Major Stanley Piet (now retired Lieutenant Colonel). “Major Piet” (and at our ROTC reunion two years ago, at age 61 “Major Piet” attended and got the same respect as when we were cadets-he still does Iron Man competitions) was [is] a hard man, formal, technically and tactically proficient, maintained high but obtainable standards, and was physically fit-at the same time, he was adaptive always innovative out of the norm on how he taught, and what he taught.
In his three years from 1981-1983 as Military Science Instructor for the juniors or Military Science IIIs at the University of Tennessee, the program won the Warrior of the Pacific Trophy two of those three years for the top program (based on the MS III performance at then called Advanced Camp). The program recognized him for this achievement as well.
First, Major Piet expected high but realistic standards out of us. We were going and striving to be lieutenants in the United States Army, and to him we had to be confident and competent. He wanted no lost lieutenants with a map who were the centerpiece of jokes in units coming from his program.
What do I mean by “high but realistic standards”? While we were writing Operations Orders, or in the field doing free play force on force exercises (he was doing it before anyone really did it), you thought there is no way we can do this? But, it made you study harder, and when he mentored you one on one in his office over an operations order test, he did not give you any slack at all. But, as long as you showed improvement and put in a 100 percent, you got through it. But, the experience was implanted in you to constantly seek doing better than the standard.
When we did physical training, he would run with you, and expect you to beat him on long individual runs. When we did tactical exercises, he wanted to see initiative and decisiveness vice risk aversion. His approach was if you built competence in the grammar of the profession of arms, then you would have the confidence to be adaptive. Grammar is defined as communication (writing and presenting orders), battle drills, land navigation and physical fitness.
Major Piet was also a believer in a meritrocracy. There was no getting by in anything you did in his course. He gave out few As and many Fs. I remember the class size in September of 1981 starting at around 60 something MS IIIs and by the time we attended Summer training in June of 1982, it was down to 30 people. After each quarter (UT had three quarters), he would post one through last ranking by our class room door. This fact made us proud that we had accomplished something.
At the same time we competited with each other, Major Piet constantly stressed selfless service and team work. We had to help each other when in follower roles to make it through his year. In our recent reunion, 23 years after our commissioning, the bonds are still strong. It validated in our minds that you could have face to face ethical competition and still embody the value of selfish service. Major Piet did this through the discussion of cohesion and followship, minimizing the impact of “Spot light Rangers.”
From the first day of class, Major Pietput us through exercises that challenged us, that were at levels others would say was too hard for cadets to do, who showed you the answers after you played with the exercise, and would not say you were wrong, but that you could do better. Compliments were few and far between.
Another example of a great teacher was my father, Virgil Vandergriff. I did not totally understand until I reached my 40thyear, and then even more so after his death in July 2005.
My father began the foundation that Major Pietsolidified. “Once you started something don’t quit,” he would tell me. “Do the best you can, just finish everything you begin and put in a 100%.” My father was even more sparing with compliments than was Major Piet, which just made me work harder. Just stands in stark contrast to today’s society where we give awards for even just finishing, and everyone is now termed a “professional.”
My father always emphasized the truth. Telling the truth was always better than lying, no matter the consequences. “If you don’t know the truth, you cannot fix it,” he would say (boy our politicians today could use that dose of honesty). Along with this maxim was his belief in a person’s word, “once you give your word to do something, you are committed.” This was in everything you did, from showing up on time to following up with people to make sure your committment or obligation was fulfilled. “If you have doubt, don’t commit to something.”
As a teacher, I held my students to these same standards.