John Quinn's Learning Story


This story is about learning and teaching and is about 65 years long. It starts when I was in 1st grade and after many varieties of living winds up back in school as a substitute teacher. The teaching experience in high school illuminates the range of student response to differing methods of teaching and makes me wonder. The fact that my elementary school teachers were nuns is not the point of my story, the students ‘ the kids ‘ are. We were a lower middle class to poor city bunch. If we were under-privileged, we couldn’t tell because there was nothing for comparison, we were all about the same. In school the teachers treated everyone the same. That is, they had courses to teach and they were going to do it. No quarter was given to anyone for any reason; they had expectations of us and we were to raise our efforts to meet those expectations. The whole school was an atmosphere of students trying to do what was expected, to meet the demands. We, the students, didn’t know anything different. This was the way life was and, so, we, for the most part, rose to the challenge because we saw no other happy choice. The pace was fast and the content thick and our ability to deal with it, digest it and add more grew stronger each day. We were expected to deliver daily excellence and meeting that expectation became a habit in the first eight years of school. That habit also came into play in our other activities, doing creative things, playing ball and games, competing at anything ‘ it was simply a habit to try to do one’s best. Meeting the quality of work expected was more difficult for some than others, but nearly everyone put in as much effort as he or she needed. Rather than getting psychologically bent from the pressure of expectation and the workload, we grew kind of proud of our successful accomplishments and the increasing ease with which we absorbed learning and rose above pressure. By the time we graduated 8th grade the habit of going for excellence was an inherent part of our operating method. So much so that we didn’t even notice it, much less analyze it. There were a few kids who had a bad enough time that they had to repeat a year but very, very few who quit and went to other schools. Those open, searching, curious kids’ minds love challenges! I didn’t become a teacher although I did a lot of teaching in other ways. The habit of trying to do things right came through in many instances in my life when there was something to be done and a vacuum of action that some one had to step into. It happened in student government in college, going to Officer Candidate School on the army, rising to manger of a business from clerk, and, then, to owner and multiple businesses, in community affairs. And now, too bored with ‘retirement’, I substitute teach in high school. I started writing a quote for the day on the board in the classroom and discussing it a little at the start of class. Now, if I forget to put one up, the kids ask where it is. I like that intelligent thoughts reach them and make them want to think. At first, I was a little surprised, but found that if I presented challenges to them, my expectations of them, they not only rose to it, but liked it. Last year I found a quote that goes to the core of the dynamic kind of education I had in my first eight years of school. Aristotle said, ‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, it is a habit.’ Now, back in school after so many years and experiences, I see that the kids aren’t failing in school. Their minds are as good as ours ever were and are easily capable of mastering and teaching me technology that leaves me spinning. I think the problem is that we don’t have high enough expectations of them and are afraid to present them with the challenge of more content of a higher grade at a faster pace from 1st grade on. It makes me think that we don’t have enough faith that kids can build the habit of excellence in spite of ‘disadvantaged’ environments or ‘privileged’ environments. I’m sure there are fine teachers who would love to teach students who want to achieve excellence. What a combination. I’ve thought that having a challenging ‘Academy’ within a grade school and high school for students to aspire to would be a challenge that would put them on the way to forming the ‘habit of excellence’ that will change their lives.