The Genius of Mr. Hoff

April 24, 2013 by Trina Bartlett
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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.

Mr. Hoff was the best teacher I ever had.

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.

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7 Responses to “The Genius of Mr. Hoff”

  1. Paul JolsteadNo Gravatar says:

    For me, it was Mr. Crow in 6th grade. I still marvel at the way he ran the entire school year: prizes in the showcase to be bid on at the “auction” on the last day of school. The weekly roll of the dice which multiplied your minus points for the week (low roll was GOOD). Every time I write a check (which isn’t very often anymore) I think of Mr. Crow because he taught us how to write them.

    Mr. Crow wasn’t outwardly a warm fuzzy but from the far remove of 30+ years I know he really cared for his students. He had the look (and demeanor?) of an undertaker. Always black suits.

    • Trina BartlettNo Gravatar says:

      My brother, Sean, had Mr. Crow for sixth grade and thought he was awesome. I called him to read him your comments, and he said, “Yeah that’s Mr. Crow. He taught a lot of things that weren’t part of the curriculum but taught us a lot.” He had Mrs. Crow for third grade, and he loved her too.

  2. Susan Call Hutchison (ReadaloudReadAlong.com)No Gravatar says:

    My dad was the principal at Buff Elementary. He’s 88 years old now. I read him this article, and he loved it. I read him a few of the comments, and he started telling me stories. Remember Outdoor School? I got to be a counselor at Camp Tamarack. That’s what I’ll always remember about Buff Elementary. Great blog, Trina!

    • Trina BartlettNo Gravatar says:

      I remember Mr. Call! Tell him hello from the Bartletts…I don’t know that he would remember me, but I’m sure he remembers my mom, Evadna. LOVED Camp Tamarack… so many happy memories. Thank you!

    • Gary SundbergNo Gravatar says:

      Susan, please say hi to your Dad for me and Kerry. I just told the story again this week of how Kay D. Call was such a pivotal man in my teaching career…my first principal, the principal who reached out to rehire me when I was ready to quit (I drove a harrowbed into the Buff parking lot, walked into his office filthy dirty, and he handed me the keys to my new classroom.) When Kerry and I drove by Camp Tamarack last weekend, we reminisced about our ride to outdoor school with Mr. Call in his Luv pickup just a couple weeks into our 37 years in Madras. Thanks Kay.
      I had the privilege of teaching with Mr. Hoff and sharing lunch across the table from him for many, many years. He inspired me, too. I learned a lot, just like his students. Thanks, Bill for being such a great colleague and friend…and a fantastic teacher for both of my girls.

  3. MonicaNo Gravatar says:

    Mr. Hoff was an amazing, inspiring teacher!! Knowing that I wanted to be a teacher when I “grew up”, I was constantly taking mental notes of all his teaching strategies! I remember learning about pistons..but it wasn’t from a book! He actually brought in pistons for us to look at and touch. So many things were this way. Definitely not like most teachers in the 80s! Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

    • Trina BartlettNo Gravatar says:

      Since we moved from Oregon, I never really had anyone to share the memories with. It is so good to know that so many people felt the same way about him!

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