The Teacher who Taught Me That Teaching Matters

The Teacher who Taught Me That Teaching Matters

As another school year approaches its close, capped by the annual standardized testing season  that hijacks the reasons any teacher teaches, I do what most teachers do: I ponder how I can get a better handle on things next year. Don’t tell anyone, but there are moments when I also wonder if I can muster the energy to do it all again. This feeling has been heightened after a year of pandemic-induced learning setbacks, a spike in discipline issues at my school and many others, not to mention the culture wars that have landed at our doorstep, making education a frustratingly tricky business. 

I’ve spent most of my adult life – close to 30 years -- teaching high school English in Fairfax County schools. I’ve also moonlighted as a local journalist. On both fronts, I have always had  a silent but indelible mentor in Patrick Welsh, my old English teacher at  T.C. Williams, now Alexandria City High School, where he taught for 43 consecutive years before retiring in 2013. 

After a typical day of teaching--the usual push-pull trajectory of explaining, expounding, prompting, teasing, and (to reference sentiments once expressed by Mr. Welsh) feeling like I’m a good teacher, feeling like I’m a lousy teacher-- I often think of him. 

I think of him as I’m walking to my car, feeling a little weary and weighed down by the papers lurking in my laptop. (Until last year's technology revolution in education, those papers filled my briefcase.) The trek has always conjured up the image of Mr. Welsh back in the late 70s: It’s about 3pm on a weekday, and he is descending the steps outside the west end of the old T.C. Williams building. His neck is slightly craned to one side as he hauls his leather bag full of papers. If it’s winter, he’s wearing his tan overcoat, unbuttoned. If he sees you, his blue eyes cast a smile your way as he walks past. “See ya later,” he says unassumingly.

Like the soul-searching characters of literature, we humans crave affirmation. My effervescent image of the thirty-something Mr. Welsh is more than a fond memory; it’s a regular reminder that what I do matters.  I serve as a foot-soldier in a campaign that never really ends, but I must never surrender to the idea that I am endlessly repeating the same tasks day after day, year after year, to no great end, as my jaded moments sometimes suggest.  Mr. Welsh’s prolific career affirms the dignity of my profession and reminds me that a teacher’s influence is ever-expanding. Touching the next generation, as Pat once said, is a miraculous privilege. 

Of course, it’s my memories of Mr. Welsh in action-- poised before the class, looking at us intently while expounding some passage in Macbeth, or Joseph Andrews, or one of those foggy Faulkner novels that so enthralled his fancy-- that stand out the most. I recall that on occasion, his own youthful memories seemed to rise to the surface during his lessons, like the time he read us a poem by James Dickey, pausing with a passionate glimmer when he got to the last line: “Wild to be wreckage forever.”

Then there were the times, and they occurred regularly, when he tried to make sense of our adolescent world by peering into it and asking in earnest what we were all about. He marveled over the music we listened to. I’ll never forget our fourth-period class of seniors erupting in laughter the time he remarked, “”I wanna kiss you all over?’ That’s a normal song lyric?”

And I’ll never forget the way Mr. Welsh would clench his jaw and punch the air with his fist to convey the tautness in a piece of writing. On one glorious occasion, the writing was an essay I had written. Thanks, Mr. Welsh. 

And speaking of writing: what a treat, over the years, to unfold the Washington Post and find a Pat Welsh article. His essays on the issues facing educators still have all the elements that any writer would want to emulate -- vivid, sometimes searing imagery; spot-on analysis; passionate conviction; the very tautness he always touted; and not least, the courage to challenge conventional thinking. He once opined that education theories “come and go like viruses” – a phrase that has played out in my head time and again throughout my career. 

A few years ago, when I had the privilege of writing a profile article on Pat for Northern Virginia Magazine, I spent weeks poring over articles he had written for the Post and other publications over the course of more than twenty-five years—and also his 1987 book Tales Out of School—all of which affirmed the opinion of Post commentator Jay Matthews, who once called Pat “one of the best teachers and most deft essayists I know.” 

Sometimes when I’m up late agonizing over a story, not quite getting it right, there’s another Pat Welsh-ism from high school that rises up and motivates me: “Sometimes, you just gotta get it written,” he once said. Just get it written—what a priceless piece of wisdom for anyone who has ever wrangled with a sentence. 

So thanks again, Mr. Welsh, for the memories and unending inspiration. I’ll think of you in August as I’m mustering the energy to do it all again. 

Helen Mondloch is a veteran teacher in Fairfax County Schools, currently at Westfield High School, and a freelance journalist of many years.