First Person: Above and Beyond

by States M. McCarter[1]


There are those who punch the clock and those whose extra efforts are everlasting


In 1998, I had the chance to read Tom Clancy’s book Into the Storm, a non-fiction account of the ground war in Desert Storm. Halfway into the book, I turned a page and was startled to see a name that I immediately recognized but for the life of me could not remember from when or from where. In the middle of the night, my mind returned to 1959, to a high school in South Carolina where I was student teaching as part of a training program at Clemson University. Clancy’s “hero,” I remembered, was a student in one of my high school classes. How are these events related to what I really want to write about—extraordinary teaching? Well, I’ll get to that.

The high school teacher (hereafter Mr. J) who served as my supervisor and mentor at the host school was recognized widely as one of the best agriculture teachers in South Carolina. During his long career, Mr. J had received many honors and accolades. Also, he’d served as president of his state professional association and was active nationally in vocational education circles. Thus, when Billy (a friend and Clemson classmate) and I were asked to choose a supervisor for our student teaching, selecting Mr. J was a no-brainer on our part.

After arriving at our host school, however, Billy and I were almost immediately disappointed with Mr. J. He was not at all impressive in the classroom. His lectures were not exciting. His lesson plans (our Clemson education professors had repeatedly stressed the importance of complete lesson plans and required us to take a bundle of perfect ones to use at our host school) were sketchy or nonexistent. He was slack in his record-keeping and other paperwork. He even had other weaknesses I will not mention. Mr. J simply did not fit my image (as developed at Clemson) of an outstanding teacher. Billy and I often sat up late at night debating why Mr. J had such a celebrated reputation as a teacher.

Now back to Clancy’s hero. Early in our training program, Mr. J called Billy and me aside and quietly sized up almost every student in his freshman through senior classes. He specifically pointed out two seniors who, he believed, were destined to accomplish important things in life and asked us to work closely with them. Clancy’s hero was one of the two. As Billy and I worked with and watched this student, we were only a little more impressed with him than we had been with Mr. J. Certainly the student was academically talented, but he seemed to lack focus and was often mischievous. How could he have as much potential as Mr. J seemed to think? After all, he was not a serious student like Billy and me. But eventually—as Into the Storm attests—the student did become a great success.  


What we failed to realize was that Mr. J. had the uncanny ability to recognize potential in his students


What we failed to recognize at the time was that Mr. J had the uncanny ability to recognize potential in his students. However, this talent alone was not the reason that Mr. J was so successful as a teacher. Our respect for Mr. J grew significantly as Billy and I observed his willingness to spend the time required to develop that potential. Classroom contact was only the beginning of his teaching effort. During breaks and after school, his classroom was often filled with students seeking assistance with, and advice about, various matters. In those days, high school guidance counselors were rare. The days (and often nights) spent at school were long for Billy and me, but we learned about the time commitment required to be an effective teacher. We realized that Mr. J was extraordinary because so many of his students became successful in a variety of endeavors. Clancy’s hero was just one of many. To Mr. J, teaching was a mission—not just a profession.

In retrospect, I don’t know why I was so slow in recognizing Mr. J’s strengths as a teacher. After all, the path I’d taken after high school was the direct result of one of my own high school teachers who recognized in me a potential that I never imagined I had. Mr. M believed I could, and should, also become a high school teacher. But, of course, pursuing such a career required a college degree, and in the 1950s, in the somewhat rural area of South Carolina where I grew up, attending college was not a routine or expected event. Only the academically talented, financially able, and sometimes culturally privileged were considered to be college material. There were few scholarships and no loan programs available, and there were no regional colleges or universities. Few in my high school even considered higher education as an option. Most male graduates became farmers, factory workers, and the like. Yes, attending college would be a great leap for me both for cultural and financial reasons.

These considerations were in no way deterrents to Mr. M. He set about getting me prepared mentally for college, encouraged me in every way possible, and helped me apply for and obtain significant scholarship help that made college a reality for a farm boy who otherwise had little hope of attending. Mr. M did for me what I saw Mr. J do for Clancy’s hero and many other students over the next several years. Like Mr. J, Mr. M spent the time necessary to develop potential in his students. I eventually became a college graduate because of his commitment. Mr. M was an effective teacher because many of his students were successful.

In college, I observed in certain professors the same kind of commitment. One, in particular, had a significant impact on my career plans. My intention of becoming a high school agriculture teacher was interrupted in my senior year when my path crossed with that of Dr. E, a plant pathology professor. Dr. E had spent most of his career in research at an off-campus location and only recently had acquired the reputation as an effective teacher. Although he’d been on campus for a relatively short time, his interest in students and his willingness to work with them outside the classroom were known.

I first met Dr. E when he served as faculty adviser to Alpha Zeta, a service and honorary fraternity to which I belonged. While working with the fraternity, Dr. E was always subtle in his comments about his profession, but it was obvious that he took pride in being a plant pathologist and sometimes shared his enthusiasm with others. As my admiration for Dr. E grew, so, too, did my interest in his field, in which, up to that time, I had never taken a course. Dr. E never “recruited” me or anyone else for plant pathology, but he often encouraged students with excellent academic records to consider graduate training. To me, a graduate program in plant pathology seemed to be the obvious choice when the time came. Once my decision was made, Dr. E arranged for me to receive a National Defense Education Act fellowship, the very best financial aid possible. Another mentor had set my path for life.  


.Looking back, I'm overwhelmed with thoughts of the devotion and time dedication of a few teachers and mentors. But I'm even more amazed (and perhaps discouraged) by how few of these there were


Looking back over the years, I’m overwhelmed with thoughts of the devotion and time dedication of a few teachers and mentors, including the three I’ve singled out. But on a negative note, I am even more amazed (and perhaps discouraged) by how few of these there were. Why was only Mr. J’s room full of inquiring students? What were the other teachers doing with their spare time? Although I ranked number one academically in my senior class, why did only two teachers (Mr. M and one other) of some 20 that I had in high school suggest that I consider college upon graduation? Did they not want to spend the time necessary to help me overcome financial obstacles? Was it because no member of my family had ever attended college? (I was the youngest in a family of 10.) In college, why was Dr. E the only professor who encouraged me to continue in graduate school and arranged for the financial support to make it happen? Why were so few professors willing to serve students outside the classroom?

In my zeal to stress the importance of teacher involvement with students beyond school walls, I have not intended to belittle in any way the importance of excellent classroom instruction. Having good lesson plans, presenting stimulating lectures, and the like are known indicators of effective teaching. But these are not the things that have made me remember certain mentors for 40 years or more.

I am thankful that during my 28 years of teaching at the university level, I have been fortunate enough to teach mostly small classes that allow one-on-one interaction with students. Even with relatively large classes, I’ve always attempted to create small-group activities—i.e., laboratory sections that facilitate my getting to know students. My mentors taught me the importance of this. Working with students and student groups outside the classroom has always been high on my list of priorities.

Although I fully understand that pressures and time constraints discourage these kinds of activities, I hope that more than a few teachers will espouse the philosophy of my mentors. Technology continues to offer new tools for instructional purposes, but it will not replace those teachers who show a genuine interest in their students.


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This essay, written by States M. McCarter, was excerpted from the book Extraordinary Teachers: The Essence of Excellent Teaching, © 2001 by Frederick J. Stephenson Jr. Ph.D., editor and reproduced on the website edition of Education Week (February 2002).  Right to reprint sought from  Andrews McMeel Publishing.