News flash: Gov. Mike Leavitt challenges school districts to fire acutely inept teachers.
Agreeing with his thesis, a group of colleagues discussed the difficulties of enduring inferior instruction and of ferreting out dead wood. Recalling our own good and bad learning experiences, we concurred that most educators are competent or better. One said his wife had recently removed their child from a certain fifth-grade class because, well, everyone knows the teacher is a lemon.Too bad for those stuck in that group and for the instructor, who must be miserable. Few things could be more unpleasant than being unhappily confined to a classroom of fidgeting youngsters day after day. Still, some endure it out of economic necessity, lack of alternatives or perhaps laziness.
Many other Utah teachers, like my own fifth-grade instructor, Paul Radmall, are terrific. As with most things, success and fulfillment hinge as much on attitude and effort as anything else.
Shortly after our family moved from Provo to Cedar City in the summer of 1967, new neighbor Grace Melling affirmed the good fortune of my landing in Mr. Radmall's class at East Elementary School. "He's a great teacher," she praised. And he was.
For starters, he commanded respect. At roughly 6-foot-6, he towered over potentially impish pupils and eyed the mischief right out of us. Discipline was never a problem. He understood "scared straight" and used it effectively before any prison system. But he mixed it with a touch of kindness that kept you in his camp.
Mr. Radmall taught the basics with precision and clarity. Yet it was mostly his willingness to go the extra mile and to venture outside the lines of orthodoxy that, looking back, set him apart as an unusually creative and effective teacher.
For starters, he let us box during recess in conjunction with Mr. Williams' fifth-grade class. In this era of litigation, that probably wouldn't happen. It was great fun then, though I recall being humiliated by Brad Carter and several sizable girls. Mr. Radmall would referee to mitigate brain damage. It sure beat playing kickball.
He was a master teller of scary stories. There was one about his six friends and him getting lost in a cave and some strange codger telling them for the next seven years each one of them would go crazy annually. The suspense would build as his voice would become hushed. "For the past seven years, on this very date, it happened to each of them. And now, (whispering), it's my turn.
"Aaaaahhhhhh!" he would scream as his 6-foot-6 frame exploded from the chair with arms outstretched and a genuinely insane look on his face - the way someone might appear when they realized they were spending their life stuck with fifth-graders.
Startled youngsters would yelp and jump two feet from fright, sometimes falling off their seats. That was after they had already heard the punch line from sixth-graders who had been through it the year before.
Best of all was the bottle band. Mr. Radmall had collected an assortment of bottles tuned to different pitches using varied water levels. They were bunched in twos and threes, including, if memory serves well, E and F; G and A; bass jugs (cider bottles); and - what's left on the musical scale - B, C and D.
There also was a flute (plastic) section, and several of us played percussion instruments including chimes, sand blocks, clave and maracas. Some lucky soul played the bass tub and washboard. Ours was a tight-sounding group known far and wide in Iron County.
It was a thrill graduating from the high-pitched E and F to the more manly bass jugs with the bigger guys in the class - sort of a pre-pubescent rite of passage. That happened when one of the jug players was transferred to smaller bottles after he kept getting lightheaded from all the huffing and puffing. I was proud to take his place. We practiced folk tunes and performed at other schools. Favorites included "Merry Widow Waltz," "Li'l Brown Jug" and "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean."
Another highlight was sitting across from Terry Webb during rehearsals. We would have staring contests to see who was first to blink. There was a bit of innocent attraction there, tempered by the fact she was 5-foot-8 and I was 4-foot-6. That evened out when we sat across from each other at bottle-band practice since the bass-jug section was on risers. It leveled the playing field and boosted boyish confidence that quickly dissipated upon standing up.
Making music and memories led to a stimulating year under Mr. Radmall's tutelage. In retrospect, he looms large as a person who made a difference due to his commitment and professionalism. Grace Melling was right: He was a great teacher - one whose influence lingers 30 years later.