Lessons Learned from Great Educators

This post is in response to Shelly Terrell’s wonderful blogging challenge, Lessons Learned From Great Eductators. She tagged other teachers to share stories about teachers who influenced them, and I’ve been enjoying reading those posts (you can find links to the response posts in the comments at the bottom of Shelly’s original post). I sort of invited myself to the party by commenting about a teacher who inspired me, and Shelly was gracious enough to invite this party crasher to join the group :)

I never wanted to be anything but a teacher.

(In the spirit of self-disclosure, I admit to wanting to be a stewardess for about 2 weeks after a field trip to the airport (it was the 70s, before “flight attendants”). The dream lasted someone explained minimum height requirements, and I realized that I’d be lucky to end up tall enough to ride the big kid rides at Disneyland, let alone tall enough to manage overhead bins.)

If someone had come up with a crystal ball and told me that I’d end up teaching English as a foreign language, and living nearly half my life outside my home country, I’d have thought it was a great joke. However, looking back at what I learned from the great educators in my life, the path becomes easier to see.

Mrs. Helms was my 5th and 6th grade teacher. In the 1960s, Anaheim was experimenting with a pilot program called Mentally Gifted Minors, and I was one of the guinea pigs. Mrs. Helms taught me that what your teacher thinks of you is more important than the truth of your abilities. Even though I couldn’t build a model rocket to save my life, and was as uninterested in Math as it was in me, she made me feel brilliant. Years before it was popular, Mrs. Helms believed that all children were geniuses in different ways. She did such a good job of making me believe that I was extraordinary that I was quite surprised, years later, when I requested my records and discovered just how ordinary I actually was (on paper).

My Aunt Ronda was the first teacher I saw buying classroom supplies out of her own small paycheck. She taught in the bilingual program in one of the poorest elementary schools in East L.A. She taught me that all students deserve a teacher who thinks the best of them, and who doesn’t think she’s doing them a big favor by being in the classroom.

In high school I discovered public speaking and debate. Kim Simmons, my speech teacher and debate coach, taught me that learning to communicate well is one of the most important skills a person can develop. Her lessons also had practical benefit–learning to speak in public helped me with the interviews that helped get the scholarships that allowed me to attend college. It’s not something that my family could have afforded.

During high school I discovered that I really enjoyed language. As I only managed one well, it made sense to become an English teacher.

Bob Martin taught rhetoric and communication analysis at Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University). Professor Martin introduced me to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and I’ve had a major crush on the trio ever since. He taught me that all teaching is communication. We use our experience and skill as teachers to choose the best means to communicate our message (our subject, or the point of our lesson) to our audience (our students). Teaching as a form of problem solving really appealed to me. In order to have a lot of teaching options in order to choose the best for each particular student, learning how to teach is just as important as learning what to teach. Teachers never stop being students.

Fast forward to graduate school. The MA TESOL program at Northern Arizona University is where I met Dr. Gina Cantoni, the professor I mentioned in the comments on Shelly’s blog. By the time I met Dr. Cantoni, she already spoke seven languages, including Navajo and Hopi (English was either language 4 or 5). The Native American languages came from her work with bilingual teachers trying to preserve tribal languages. She spent a lot of time on the road, traveling to schools on various reservations to do teacher training (no e-learning). She taught me that great teachers are measured not by what they get out of their profession, but what they give back.

So, these are some of the educators who influenced me. How about you? If you haven’t been tagged, but would like to share, please do! You can leave a comment here, or on Shelly’s blog, or write an entire post on your own blog if you like. It’s a wonderful exercise for this time of year, when it’s natural for us to reflect and remember times past, and to say thanks to those who have made our lives richer. Thanks, Shelly, for putting out this challenge!

P.S. I know blog posts don’t usually have book lists, but since many of Dr. Cantoni’s papers are now online, I thought you might enjoy reading about some of her work with teaching indigenous languages.

Stabilizing Indigenous Languages

Learn in Beauty: Indigenous Education for a New Century

Using TPR-Storytelling to Develop Fluency and Literacy in Native American Languages

Keeping Minority Languages Alive: The School’s Responsibility

Content-Area Language Instruction: Approaches and Strategies

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

About Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto has taught English and ESL in the US, and EFL in Japan. An EFL teacher and teacher trainer since 1985, she has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the USA and Latin America. Barbara’s motto is ‘Always try new things’, so these days, when she’s not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, she’s exploring the potential of new technologies for collaboration and professional development. You can often find Barbara online working with teachers around the world as Program Director for International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi.pro) or on her new blog for English teaches who work with young learners, Teaching Children English.

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14 Responses

  1. Nergiz Kern says:


    No wonder that you have become such a wonderful person and teacher yourself with so many great teachers and role models in your life.

    Thanks for sharing!


    • Barbara Barbara says:

      It was nice to have my memory jogged. It’s the kind of thing you don’t often think about in detail, just in some vague “Yeah, I had some really great teachers” kind of way :)

  2. Barbara,

    I love how you highlighted each lesson! These are wonderful lessons every teacher can learn. It is important to have teachers who care about students and make them feel extraordinary. We never know what our students struggle with in their home environments or at school. Too many times their peers or loved ones may make them feel insecure. If we show how much we care about them then they can at least know someone does.

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      Thanks so much for nudging me to do this. It was exactly the activity I needed to ground me in a season of hustle and bustle.

      You might enjoy some of the articles about trying to bring back Navajo. The Ed policies forbidding tribal languages in schools came from a different government department than the policies you grew up with in SA, but they were equally an example of political ideology trumping common sense.

      Because the schools forbid students from speaking Navajo, most of the teachers I knew from the reservation were having to learn the language in order to teach it, because (you guessed it) the schools were suddenly expected to preserve the language by passing it onto another generation who hadn’t learned it at home.

      While I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, a lot of Gina’s work with teachers was on developing techniques to empower non-fluent teachers to successfully teach a language very different from English.

      It was fun to read back through the papers–working with teachers who are also less-than-fluent has given me a different perspective on that time.

      Thanks for that, too!

  3. Barbara,

    I’m so glad you accepted Shelly’s challenge! I, too, found that as I looked back on my own education it was no surprise that I ended up where I am now. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t teaching or dreaming of being a teacher.

    Thanks for sharing your memories of the wonderful teachers who helped you along the way.

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      I really enjoyed your post, too! I loved learning about your Montessori past, and found the “walkabout” fascinating. Wish we’d had that when I was in high school.

      You know, those of us who grew up wanting to be teachers should probably write a blog post thanking our siblings, friends, and cousins for putting up with us when we played school. Since I don’t remember ever being a student during those games, I’m thinking they must have been extraordinarily patient to always let me get my way :)

  4. This is so great. Thank you very much, Barbara. Personally, I remember very clearly one moment in my secondary education when a teacher brought in a sliver soup ladle, held it up for us to see and exclaimed ‘Look how beautiful this is!’. I can’t even remember who the teacher was but I still remember the ladle. I was even thinking about this just yesterday, wondering whjat that ladle means. I remember it so clearly because the teacher was doing something out of the ordinary. It stuck in my head more than anything else in 5 years at that school.

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      Isn’t it amazing how things stick in our minds? It’s like we have these little video vignettes forever frozen in memory–we may not remember who or where or even when, but we remember what.

      Thanks for sharing this memory. Now I wonder what the ladle meant, too :)

  5. Alice M says:

    I had so many great teachers. They all believed in me, and trusted me. And their trust generated my trust in them. And this was beautiful because at a young age I needed that trust to progress. And then one of them, a philosophy teacher, Monsieur Gourinat, questioned my trust in him in order for me to question his views and search for answers through my own thinking. This was such an eye opener! from then on, I always make sure there is space enough in my lesson to question things, to disagree, to be surprised, to wonder.
    Another great thing my teachers helped me experience is the enjoyment of being alive. My teacher of French as a foreign language (FLE), madame Forestal, was so energetic and passionate about teaching her own language that she was a pure joy to listen to. And the joy oozed from her and filled the whole classroom. Then I *knew* I wanted to become a teacher, I wanted to feel that joy again!

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      What a powerful message, Alice!

      Sounds like your Monsieur Gourinat was a strong teacher, to be willing to risk your trust in order to help you grow. Not many teachers would be that brave, I think.

      I love teachers like your Madame Forestal–I feel good just being around them. Somehow, it seems joy is contagious.

      Thanks for sharing your memories!

  1. December 15, 2009

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  2. February 2, 2010

    […] Barbara Saka reminds us of the importance of reflection of those who influenced our instructional styles in her post, Lessons Learned from Great Educators. […]

  3. February 16, 2010

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