The Lasting Legacy of Good Teachers

The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery. -Mark Van Doren

Teacher’s Day is a special day for the appreciation of teachers, a once-a-year opportunity to remember, honor, and thank them for their contributions to the education of our young people and to society. For me, it’s one of many times throughout the year that I think about the dedicated women and men in the classroom who have influenced me. Maybe it’s because I’m older than most of you or perhaps it’s because I have spent my career working in the field of education in the US, Vietnam, and Germany.

While I was blessed with many good teachers during my K-12 career (I can even remember the name of my 1st grade teacher!), the ones I have some of the fondest memories of are faculty from my undergraduate and graduate programs. Here are two who deserve recognition. The first passed away nearly 35 years ago. I’m still in touch with the second.

Undergraduate Study

I was fortunate to be a student in Prof. Edmund S. Glenn’s course on intercultural communication at the University of Delaware (UD). I stumbled upon a 2018 article about him in a local newspaper in Virginia, where one of his sons, John, lives. “My Dad would be proud that you enjoyed his course and still remember it. He loved teaching the course, and he loved his students. He was committed to trying to make the world a better place,” John shared with me via email. Successful in achieving that and other goals, Prof. Glenn died in 1987 at the age of 72.

Prior to his teaching career, Prof. Glenn served as a personal interpreter for US presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, along with several secretaries of state. In addition to his native language, Polish, he was fluent in French and English.

Of special interest to me was the serendipitous discovery that Prof. Glenn was the interpreter for John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle at their historic and fateful May 1961 meeting in Paris. Here’s a relevant Vietnam-related excerpt from an April 2020 article:

Once again, it could have been otherwise. When they met in May 1961, the French president Charles de Gaulle spoke these prophetic words to President John F. Kennedy:  ‘You will find that intervention in this area will be an endless entanglement. Once a nation has been aroused, no foreign power, however strong, can impose its will upon it. You will discover this for yourselves. For even if you find local leaders who in their own interests are prepared to obey you, the people will not agree to it, and indeed do not want you. The ideology which you invoke will make no difference. Indeed, in the eyes of the masses it will become identified with your will to power. That is why the more you become involved out there against Communism, the more the Communists will appear as the champions of national independence, and the more support they will receive, if only from despair.

De Gaulle later said that ‘Kennedy listened to me but events were to prove that I had failed to convince.’

(Glenn gave President Kennedy the exact same advice as de Gaulle.)

Prof. Glenn was one of many educators who helped open my mind to the world beyond the borders of the United States, which planted the seeds for my transformation from national to global citizen.

Graduate Study

A professor from my graduate school days who had a lasting impact on my academic and professional life is Dr. Philip G. Altbach, with whom I studied in my Ph.D. program at the University at Buffalo. Prof. Altbach acted as my dissertation committee chairman in the absence of my adviser, Dr. Harold J. Noah, who was out of the country at the time. (Those professors, among the best in the world in their fields, were two of the reasons I chose to enroll in that program.)

Prof. Altbach, or Phil, as I’ve called him since we became colleagues, was most recently research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College, where he was the Monan University Professor from 1994 to 2014. He’s a prolific writer and a gifted teacher who launched his distinguished career after earning his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago at the relatively young age of 25. Although Dr. Altbach turned 80 this year, he remains active, a role model for me and countless others.

Despire Prof. Altbach’s international reputation and fame in comparative and international higher education, he’s humble, friendly, and accessible, unlike many intellectuals of his stature. I remember one seminar during which a fellow student asked him in jest if his middle “G” initial stood for “God.” Prof. Altbach didn’t miss a beat. He just chuckled and continued with his introductory remarks. Unlike many professors, who prefer research and writing to teaching, he truly enjoys interacting with students.  

Thanks to Prof. Altbach, I acquired important knowledge and improved the quality of my academic writing. As a mentor, he opened some doors along the way using his extensive network, which created new professional opportunities for me. One was the honor and privilege of working with the late Harold Stevenson, a professor at the University of Michigan, as a primary researcher on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) Case Study Project in 1994-95 in Germany and the US. (Prof. Stevenson was a pioneering developmental psychologist whose comprehensive studies in the 1980s showed that schoolchildren in Asia generally outperformed their US peers simply because they worked harder, among other reasons.)

The immortality of these teachers and mentors lies not only in their descendants, vast body of scholarly work, and service to their fields and the global community, but also in the generations of students, scholars, and professionals whose minds and spirits they touched and whose paths they influenced. I count myself lucky to be among them.

Đây là bản dịch tiếng Việt.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

P.S.: Happy Vietnamese Teachers’ Day! Chúc mừng ngày nhà giáo Việt Nam 20/11!

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