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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Teaching Character: Learning From Memorable Mentors

Sometimes it's not what you learn, but how you learn it.
By Harry Shearer

On The Simpsons, I play twenty-one characters, including Principal Seymour Skinner. Sometimes, while playing Skinner, I think about the characters who've appeared in my education.

I went to one of the best public middle schools in LA -- we had to move to get me in -- and it was there I met a pivotal teacher. She was the legendary Miss Ebbets, a woman who theoretically taught English and social studies. But Miss Ebbets totally junked the normal curriculum and ran a class in which we proposed books to read and then later would report on to the class. If she thought we were choosing beneath our ability, she'd veto the choice. Most of the classes were consumed with our discussions of the books; that, and Miss Ebbets's reports on her previous afternoons at the racetrack.

Once a week, to keep things kosher, Miss Ebbets would give us a ten-question test on the curriculum, and, so that we could pass it, the day before, she'd give us "tips"on what pages and paragraphs we could consult to find the answers. She rocked.

Later on, I got into teaching not for any noble reason but because I needed to avoid the draft. I got a job at the last district in California to hire -- the Compton Unified School District -- and was assigned to teach English and social studies.

I was young (twenty-two), and the hiring official told me the only way to survive was to act twenty years older, so I tried to be like one of the few inspiring teachers I had in high school: Murray Shapiro. He was most influential to me personally in the way he combined his intelligence with a sense of humor. Mr. Shapiro showed us how we could apply critical thinking and still be funny.

My teaching days lasted only two years. The last three months of my second year, I was working at a continuation school, the lowest rung on the district ladder. One day, a kid who was being kicked out of someone else's class and being escorted to the exit escaped from his handler. He ran into my classroom and punched me in the jaw. I decided to take the longest possible time to recover -- i.e., the rest of the school year. I realized my experiment was over, and I submitted my resignation to the district.

Although my experience as a teacher ended badly, I realized that teaching begins not from where the teacher is, standing on the mount of knowledge and beckoning students up, but from where the students are inherently curious but overstimulated by crap and bored by pedanticism. Teachers should get much greater flexibility in how they approach the material. (With Miss Ebbets, for instance, I ended up reading books no teacher would ever have assigned an eighth grader.) Teachers can also have a field day showing kids the difference between what's said in public and what really goes on, much like the insights Mr. Shapiro offered. One warning: Humor is one of those things that can't be taught. Attempts to do so just result in widespread embarrassment for all concerned.

But if someone has the gift of an interesting personality, they should use it to engage and challenge their students every day. Don't be afraid to become a character they'll remember.

Harry Shearer appeared in This Is Spinal Tap (which he also cowrote), as well as Godzilla, The Right Stuff, Oscar, and The Fisher King. He's written and performed on television, including Saturday Night Live, and his nationally syndicated public radio program, Le Show, has become a critics' favorite.

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