Good Questions: Did Your History Teachers Make You Want to Be a Historian?

Last week I had the chance to chat by Skype with some 8th grade social studies students in Kalispell, Montana. Their teacher, Mr. Ferda (one of my favorite Bethel alums), had each student draft a question ahead of time, and while we didn’t quite get to all of them, the questions were so good that I thought they might make for a good blog series.

Did your past history teachers have anything to do with your choice to be a historian?

Since today is National Teachers Day, I thought I’d start with this one. It’s also the easiest question to answer: YES!!!

I could name many people here, including college professors like Maryann Brink (who helped convince me to switch my major from International Relations to History about a month into college), George Strong, Thomas Sheppard, and Gilbert McArthur, and grad school mentors Paul Kennedy, John Lewis Gaddis, Mary Habeck, Diane Kunz, and John Merriman. But I think the question is especially meant to get at earlier influences…

I first met Maureen Conway not long after I turned eight years old. In the middle of a school year, I had just changed schools and grades (from 2nd grade in my local public school to 3rd grade in a new K-12 private school), and things were not going all that well. Among other challenges, I had to take a foreign language for the first time, and my classmates were months ahead of me in knowledge of French. But Mme. Conway not only worked with me outside of class to develop my vocabulary and grammar, but she recorded cassette tapes for me to use at home. (When I finished my PhD, she sent me one of the cassette tapes as a gift.)

Ms. Conway in actionBut teaching French was just a sidelight: in 7th grade Mme. Conway, French savior, suddenly became Ms. Conway, American history super-teacher! I had her again in 12th grade U.S. history, but it was the earlier middle school encounter that fixed in my head the image of what a teaching historian should be like: passionate, and compassionate; tender-hearted towards those on the margins of society; committed to learning from the past to improve the present; fearlessly innovative in the classroom; and absolutely dedicated to seeing her students become the best versions of themselves. In her school profile, this is how she describes her philosophy in the classroom:

If I love it, they’ll love it; if they love it, they’ll learn it; if they learn it, they’ll use it; if they use it, they can change the world.

Not long after coming back to the Twin Cities to teach at Bethel, I visited Maureen’s classroom on a day that she taught about World War I — and heard echo after echo of my own voice teaching that same chapter in history! Clearly I soaked up plenty of information and pedagogy along with everything else. For a taste of how she does what she does, check out Maureen and her students talking about her Constitutional Law course:

In my own research into higher education, I’ve often come back to the wisdom of Bethel’s longest-serving president, Carl Lundquist, who wrote in 1959 that the central feature of education at Bethel was not classes, credits, curriculum, or other “academic paraphernalia,” but “the impact of one life upon another.” My own experience with Maureen Conway testifies to that truth.

And I’m surely not alone. I interview almost all of the Bethel students who apply to enter our Social Studies Education 5-12 program, and at least nine times in ten, they’ll find a way to bring up a certain history teacher whose impact on their lives had been formative. Then last night in the last session of our capstone class — as we talked about history as a calling, not just a career — several of our students planning to teach talked about the equal shares of joy that they experience learning about history and then sharing their knowledge with others.

So even though they enter a profession that has countless challenges and a high burn-out rate, they felt confident that they would be able to nourish their love for history by teaching it to others. Which is exactly what Maureen Conway did for me, and what Taylor Ferda is doing for his 8th graders in Montana.

Thanks to Maureen, Taylor, and all who teach history!

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