It has been suggested to me many times at various PD events that teachers should take a moment to write a letter to teachers who were themselves influential and important to us. the Ontario College of Teachers’ publication Professionally Speaking includes a regular segment on Remarkable Teachers. It with this in mind that I have chosen to put my thoughts in the blogosphere. For those who do not know him, Irv Osterer is currently an Art and Cooperative Education teacher at Merivale High School in Ottawa. Thank you for your indulgence.
When I think back to my time at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School, invariably I am reminded of things I learned in your class or on your field trips. As a teacher and a parent, many of those lessons have placed a key role in my decision making and choices. In the summer of 2011, I took part in the A.Y. Jackson S.S. Class of 1986 25th reunion, and since then I have been thinking about how you made an impact on my life and the lives of my classmates. None of us really knew where we were headed when we started grade 9 in the fall of 1980, whom we would meet who would make a difference, or what the lasting impact would be of our high school experience. It was fascinating to see so many people who night, to hear how some had moved far from home while others still lived in our old neighbourhoods. There was a great deal of excitement about who would show up that night, especially from the teaching staff. The staff who were there were all received warmly by their former students; we all had funny stories to tell about each other; we shared a tear and a smile for those no longer with us. Not surprisingly though, two men received the greatest response — our Vice Principal Mike Neil and you. Certainly no two individuals had more positive impact on as many students.
You taught Art, a course nobody had to take after grade 9, and even then it was optional. You took a bunch of kids with a wide range abilities and encouraged us to try, assuring everybody that they could create something. While a I fancied myself something of an artist, I quickly realized what real artistic talent looked like. Even still, you made sure each of had a basic understanding of various aspects of art. For that, I am ever grateful. As a teacher, I have often referred to some of the choices I made in school, not all of which were good choices, and the responses of my teachers. You always made it clear to us that we have to be accountable for our actions, telling us there is a line in the sand. You ave us plenty of room to have fun and push limits, but if we crossed the line we knew there would be repercussions. Behaviour and choices that was destructive to the learning of others and ourselves was not tolerated. You were always fair, but firm, reminding me of Teddy Roosevelt’s adage: “walk softly and carry a big stick.”
Even though we weren’t all great artists, you expected us to try our best. When asked to draw a series of still life drawings of something in the class, I thought I would be smart (or is that cheeky?) and draw staples. While others were drawing apples, shoes, feathers, or flowers, I took on the simple staple. I did managed to draw large, small, 3D, and abstract staples. Sure I had managed to meet the expectations of the task, as your wife pointed out to you, but you made it clear to me that I could do more. What need did I have to refer to Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poet’s Society who reminds the student that while “The cat / Sat on / The mat.” is a poem, it isn’t much of a poem. I had my own experience and guiding teacher. Yes I managed to draw staples, but that really wasn’t the point of the exercise (I still have the drawings as a reminder), and I realized and remembered that. I don’t think I ever tried with such a weak effort after that.
I had the pleasure to have you for one other course in high school, the newly created grade 12 photography class in which students were taught the fundamentals of photography and black-and-white film development and printing. It was during this course that you took me aside and suggested I become a teacher. You had watched me complete all of my work and then help other students who were having problems, or make suggestions on things they could try differently. While you may have made this comment in passing, or as a comment on my inability to stand still, I took it to heart. As I head into my 20th year as a teacher, I am profoundly thankful for your simple comment and continued support.
Through two classes with you and trips to New York City and London, England, you espoused a life lived through experiential learning. Not surprisingly, every time we meet now, whether it be a workshop or at the reunion, our conversation turns to education. I still value your advice, your opinions, your arguments. While I still have photos I took on those trips in my office to remind me of what you taught me, there is something much more intangible that has stayed with me all of these years for which I am forever grateful to you. You are without a doubt, my most remarkable teacher.