As a fifth grader, I thought my teacher, Mr. Hoff, was a very odd man.
He was balding and middle-aged, but he walked with the gait of a gawky teenager who hadn’t quite yet adjusted to his new body. Instead of drinking coffee, he carried a thermos full of milk that he kept with him at all times. He wore a funny-looking, fuzzy, fur hat, and he would often break into song during the middle of class.
With an unorthodox approach to education and a genuine understanding of what kids really need, Mr. Hoff didn’t teach to the test and often didn’t even teach from a book. Instead, he taught from his heart and for his students.
We learned the parts of speech, how to solve complicated math problems and how fossils were formed. More importantly, we learned that education could actually be fun and exciting.
Thirty-five years later, I still remember.
On the first day of school after summer vacation, my classmates and I quickly discovered that Mr. Hoff wasn’t like any other teacher we’d ever known. He didn’t take a lot of time going over the classroom rules or carefully assigning us seats. Instead, he drank milk and talked about his passion for history. When he stopped talking, he told us to put away everything but a pencil and paper. He then instructed us to write everything we knew about history. Everything.
Since I’d spent much of my summer reading biographies from the public library, I was sure I’d ace the first test of fifth grade. Long after the other students had turned in their papers, I was still writing, and I handed in my essay with great pride. I anticipated an excellent grade and praise from Mr. Hoff. Instead, I got nothing. The papers were never graded and eventually forgotten.
As the school year wore on, Mr. Hoff continued to surprise and delight our class.
Instead of spending his free time with the other teachers, he chose to spend time with us and engage in conversation about our lives.
If we were restless, he rarely told us to quiet down or pay attention. Instead, he would take us outside for an unscheduled recess or to the gym to play dodgeball.
Like most of my classmates, Mr. Hoff preferred to be outside rather than in his classroom. He taught us geography by taking us into the schoolyard and pointing out the peaks of the Cascade Mountains. He taught us geology by taking us spelunking. We learned how engines worked by peering inside the hood of Mr. Hoff’s car and by visiting vocational classes at the local high school next door.
When weather or other forces kept us inside, Mr. Hoff kept us interested in grammar by playing games. He kept us interested in history by telling stories. He told lots and lots of stories.
But Mr. Hoff didn’t just entertain us, he expected us to learn. Unlike other teachers who scheduled tests, Mr. Hoff gave pop quizzes about anything and everything. We never knew when we’d have one or what the topic would be, so we paid attention.
The school year sped by, and the last week of school arrived too soon. During one of those final days of fifth grade, Mr. Hoff once again told us to put everything away but a pencil and paper and to write down everything we knew about history. Everything.
This time, I wasn’t the only one who wrote, and wrote and wrote. The classroom was silent except for the scratching of pencils, the turning of paper and the occasional whir of the pencil sharpener. When the bell rang, Mr. Hoff collected our papers.
The next day, he handed them back along with the essays we’d each written on the first day of school.
“I encourage you,” he said, “to read both and tell me what you learned this year.”
The classroom erupted in noise. Everyone was talking and laughing about how little we’d known only nine months earlier. When Mr. Hoff asked for comments, everyone put a hand up.
Everyone had learned something.
Before the final bell rang, Mr. Hoff told us, “Education and life have a lot in common. They aren’t about how much you already know but about how much you continue to learn.”
Now, as a 46 year-old mother of two, I still think Mr. Hoff was a very odd man, but I know that he was an absolutely brilliant teacher.