Al Rakowski, from the 1970 Quigley North yearbook.

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?

Joni Mitchell

What does it take to be a great teacher?* 

You come into class on the first day in the fall of 1966 — a time of great change, both in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council and in America with “The Sixties” beginning to heat up — and you sit on top of the desk instead of standing behind it. Your group of clueless freshman seminarians have never seen anything like this before. 

Great teachers change the way you look at teachers. 

You are friendly and accessible, comfortable in your skin. You don’t really teach a subject. You simply teach. You aren’t there to tell your students how much you know. You want to know what they think and how they feel. So you listen to them as if they mattered — because they do. Your students feel that you like them — because you do.

Mr. Rogers won’t be on the scene for another three years, but when he appears on Public TV, you recognize a kindred spirit. 

Officially, you teach religion, but unofficially you teach psychology, and your classroom expands into the hallways. A good word here. An insight there. A pointed comment. A well-aimed question. “Have you ever wondered what it would be like …?”

When you see one who is self-contained, who likes the Simon & Garfunkel song, “I am a rock, I am an island … and a rock feels no pain and an island never cries,” you drop him a note: “No man is an island.”

Your students change a lot over the span of four years, but so do you. You attend encounter groups at Esalen Institute in California one summer and fall in love with the woman who will become your life partner, the main reason you will soon leave the priesthood, so you have a particular sensitivity to your students’ awkward progress toward maturity. You know that, after all is said and done, education is really a process of self-discovery. The Latin roots are educare and educere, the first meaning “to mold,” the second “to draw out.” You do both.

Great teachers change the way you look at teaching.

In 1969, the fall senior retreat is a near-disaster. The older priest leading it is not a good fit and the students, now steeped in The Sixties, rebel. Someone rolls a smoke bomb under his door and he leaves in a huff. Clearly, the students you have been teaching need a stronger lesson, but instead of shaming them, you call their bluff. Organize your own retreat, you say. They rise to the occasion, and the occasion quickly evolves from impersonal to interpersonal, small groups discussing deeper feelings, many for the first time. It is a particular revelation to “the rock.”

Great teachers know their students and raise expectations accordingly.

The following spring, because they ask for more, you invite six of those students to the Fox River boat house/cabin, owned by members of your family, for a weekend retreat just four days after the killings at Kent State have thrown the future for these soon-to-be college students into disarray. You probably think about ways this could go wrong, and by today’s standards, some might deem this inappropriate, but nothing goes wrong. It is entirely appropriate. You aren’t trying to be anyone’s guru. You aren’t trying to be everyone’s “buddy.” You stay in your role as teacher, and that makes all the difference.

The seven of you explore the power of deep interpersonal sharing. While listening to Joni Mitchell records, playing softball, taking walks and making meals, but especially during long sessions of soul-sharing, you learn a lesson in platonic intimacy — you catch a glimpse of love as a spiritual force, that love is more than mere feeling and that our respective islands are connected by the same ocean.

Great teachers are also great learners.

On Saturday night, the Mass you celebrate ends with the sunset’s glow filling the room, and “communion” suddenly means more than sharing bread and wine. It means a state of “communal union.” A comfortable, connected silence lingers. 

Great teachers have the courage to trust and take risks that pay big dividends.

Your students move on in life and so do you. It includes marriage and teaching at the university level, counseling and gardening, and living near the shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana for 50 years with your wonderful life-affirming partner, Jude.

Some of your students stay in touch, including the rock, who sends his columns along via email. But like all great teachers, you don’t know you are a great teacher, though your students do. They understand the gift they were given.

And they thank you from their deep heart’s core — for showing them the way to their deep heart’s core. 

And for teaching one final lesson: 

What it takes to be a great teacher.

* Dedicated to Al Rakowski, who died recently at the age of 90.

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