Gratitude for Teachers

“Gratitude for Teachers,” Bob Ryder

Buddhist Proverb – When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

“Can you read this?  You’re welcome!”  (message on a sign carried by demonstrators at the Arizona “Red for Ed” March soliciting increased funding for teachers’ compensation and school funding)

I spent 5thgrade in the classroom of Bill Wright (Mr. Wright to me back then).  He was an amazing teacher – and not only because he could help his students learn so well, but also because he had an extraordinary gift for managing a classroom at once firmly and gently – I’ve never seen his equal.  Kids being kids, our attention would lapse and we’d begin messing around or dragging our feet trying to get to 3:15 before he could give us another reading assignment.  As best I can recall, though, Mr. Wright never became impatient or coercive. If there was discipline to be meted out, he took the student aside individually and spoke calmly and respectfully.  Once when it was my turn for a talking to, he motioned me aside and said, “Bob, anyone can see your getting bored with this and you’d rather be doing something else.  Am I right?  Long division takes practice and this is something you need to be good at – you’ll use this a lot.  So, I need you to hang in there a little longer and get through the problems up to page 126 – you can do it.  If you need to, move your desk someplace where you can concentrate for fifteen more minutes.  Alright? Do you know what you’re doing with the division?  Good man, go make it happen.  Stephen, I need to speak with you for a moment, as well.  Everyone else, keep going.  Recess in 15 minutes – 12 if I don’t need to have another chat before then. How is it that we’re going to get everyone through page 126 in 12 minutes?  (we replied in unison, “Good class teamwork>.)  Correct.  Please, as you continue your work.”  In Mr. Wright’s classroom I recall feeling both safe and smart.

I spent 6thgrade in the classroom of Pete Mathiak.  By contrast, he managed our behavior with intimidation and ridicule.  No less prone to shenanigans in the 6thgrade, our attention would lapse and we’d talk or trade notes or snacks under our desks sometimes.  The penalty for such disruptions there was often a tirade of beratement punctuated by being pelted with ping pong balls – which could leave welts when they hit you on bare skin.  “How many times am I going to have to talk to you this week, Bobby – where’s your head? Tell me something, did you eat stupid pills for breakfast?  Answer me when I’m talking to you.  Answer me!” For years to come that left a dent in the way I experienced school and the way I thought about teachers and learning in general.  Learning became an activity to be endured, and to finish learning something was just a relief.

Here are a few readings to consider as we continue…

Proverbs 8:1-11
Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
‘To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.
O simple ones, learn prudence;
acquire intelligence, you who lack it.
Hear, for I will speak noble things,
and from my lips will come what is right;
for my mouth will utter truth;
wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
All the words of my mouth are righteous;
there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.
They are all straight to one who understands
and right to those who find knowledge.
Take my instruction instead of silver,
and knowledge rather than choice gold;
for wisdom is better than jewels,
and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.

The Human Brain Can Create Structures in Up to 11 Dimensions
(excerpted from an article on the website “Science Alert” –

SIGNE DEAN – 21 APR 2018
Last year, neuroscientists used a classic branch of math in a totally new way to peer into the structure of our brains.

What they discovered is that the brain is full of multi-dimensional geometrical structures operating in as many as 11 dimensions.

We’re used to thinking of the world from a 3-D perspective, so this may sound a bit tricky, but the results of this study could be the next major step in understanding the fabric of the human brain – the most complex structure we know of.

This brain model was produced by a team of researchers from the Blue Brain Project, a Swiss research initiative devoted to building a supercomputer-powered reconstruction of the human brain.

The team used algebraic topology, a branch of mathematics used to describe the properties of objects and spaces regardless of how they change shape.

They found that groups of neurons connect into ‘cliques’, and that the number of neurons in a clique would lead to its size as a high-dimensional geometric object (a mathematical dimensional concept, not a space-time one).

“We found a world that we had never imagined,” said lead researcher, neuroscientist Henry Markram from the EPFL institute in Switzerland.

“There are tens of millions of these objects even in a small speck of the brain, up through seven dimensions. In some networks, we even found structures with up to 11 dimensions.”

“We found a remarkably high number and variety of high-dimensional directed cliques and cavities, which had not been seen before in neural networks, either biological or artificial,” the team wrote in the study.

“Algebraic topology is like a telescope and microscope at the same time,” said one of the team, mathematician Kathryn Hess from EPFL.

“It can zoom into networks to find hidden structures, the trees in the forest, and see the empty spaces, the clearings, all at the same time.”

Those clearings or cavities seem to be critically important for brain function. When researchers gave their virtual brain tissue a stimulus, they saw that neurons were reacting to it in a highly organised manner.

“It is as if the brain reacts to a stimulus by building [and] then razing a tower of multi-dimensional blocks, starting with rods (1D), then planks (2D), then cubes (3D), and then more complex geometries with 4D, 5D, etc,” said one of the team, mathematician Ran Levi from Aberdeen University in Scotland.

“The progression of activity through the brain resembles a multi-dimensional sandcastle that materialises out of the sand and then disintegrates.”



What is something really interesting and important you’ve learned in your life? It could be from any age.  Maybe it was a simple mechanical thing like how to change a tire, or maybe it was conceptual, such as how to tell time or that time slows down for someone in a gravity well or traveling close to light speed, or that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.  The galaxies further and further from our us are receding faster and faster as the universe space fabric grows, and we’re carried away from one another on a current of increasing space/time.  I remember a simple off-hand observation one of my literature professors made during a class while I was in college.  “Virtue is its own reward.”  I’ve been pondering that ever since, trying to notice my ulterior motives in work and relationships and set them aside to cultivate a bit of genuine altruism – it’s tricky.  What’s something impactful you’ve learned in your years?  Is there something you can pinpoint that changed the direction of your life, or the way you think about your place in the universe, or that improved your social skillset, or the way you approach work or friendship?  Who taught you that insight?

At the suggestion of my therapist, I write occasional entries in a gratitude journal as one way of practicing mindfulness.  Scanning the landscape of one’s life to appreciate relationships and possessions and experiences that do us good is a fine antidote for experiences self-pity, entitlement, arrogance, irritability, depression and a list of similar mental stressors and bad habits to which the mind is vulnerable.  Probably it’s more than an antidote, gratitude might even be a vaccination against such toxic experiences.  So, now and again I compose entries in a gratitude journal.  Sometimes the entries are brief – just a sentence or two.  Sometimes they develop into a full reflection, such as I share now.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been grateful for the teachers in my life.  Part of that is recognizing just how many teachers I’ve had; how many I have at even now.  There’s my percussion teacher Tom Teasley, who kindly walks me through concepts of music theory and the instruments and rhythms of world music every week or so as I try to incorporate them into my mind and arms and legs.  He’s patient and encouraging, which informs me as much as his instruction on how to get the desired sound from a conga drum.  He’s a good teacher and I’m grateful for having him in my life.  There are my teachers in behavior science – in particular I’m grateful for my mentor Pat Miller, who taught me the power of shaping behavior with positive reinforcement – she’s made enormous difference in my life that will probably continue to influence me until I die.  There was Jeff Burroughs, a psychology professor during my freshman year at Juniata college, who helped me recognize my talent for that field.  There’s our own Joe White who helps me develop critical thinking skills.  There are presenters on TED Talks and Radio Lab, authors of scientific research articles and fiction novels (I’ve learned an awful lot about human nature from Stephen King), journalists who search out and report facts that are often concealed by dangerous people.  There was Bill Brower, my speech professor in graduate school, who taught me the power of poetry and difference between facts and truth.  John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg who taught me about Jesus.

All of these teachers and many more have shaped me bit by bit into a better, more mature and capable person.  They’ve all shared information of one kind or another.  Some of it is very specific and pragmatic, like how to play a funk groove on cajon.  Some of it is broad and philosophical, such as the insight that humans’ ability to make inferences about the thoughts and intentions of others is often badly distorted by a filter of insecurity.  Some of it is spiritual and transcendent, such as the insight that we can override our fears and biases by cultivating mindfulness and forgiveness and gratitude. That certainly is a hopeful thought. Thank goodness for the teachers who helped me learn that, including Eckhart Tolle and Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron and Donella Grabil and Johanna Rayman.

There’s an experience we all have – or at least that we’re capable of having – when we suddenly understand something that was hidden from us before.  “Ah, now I get it – wow!  I never thought of it that way before.”  It’s the “aha” moment in which we grasp a concept, see a pattern in the numbers, find the coordination to play an elusive rhythm or make the transition from an Fmaj7 to a B-flat chord, to ride a 2-wheeler or stick the landing off the uneven bars.  It might be a moment where we experience a new dimension of empathy as we figure out summon an emotion while portraying a character in a play, or when we recognize some distortion in our perspective or behavior that allows us to make an adjustment and get out of our own way.  The experience I’m alluding to is the satisfaction we can derive from learning something for its own sake.  There’s a joy that comes in discovering something, a pleasure separate from any practical benefit the insight might confer.  In the very biological process of neurons making new synaptic connections and growing the myelin-sheathing to make those neural pathways more efficient that happens as we learn, there is an experience of wonder.  Learning can often be its own reward.  One of the insights I’ve had eve while composing this reflection is that I have forgiven Mr. Mathiak for the hostility he inflicted on his students, including me.  I’m even grateful for the knowledge that comes from understanding what damage can be done by influencing another’s behavior with aversive punishment.  With some perspective, it’s even possible to enjoy learning through adversity.

What is something you’re grateful to have learned, and who is the teacher you’re grateful to have learned from?