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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Steve Christilaw: Sometimes a teacher just has to trust his instinct

There are teachers and coaches I wish my grandkids could have the chance to learn from and play for as they grow up.

It’s not a long list. But it just got a little longer.

For starters, there’s my third-grade teacher, Mrs. Pingrey, who made learning fun. She had a great sense of humor and a quick wit. One of my friends from those days living on Lake Chelan told me she was even more fun after she retired and would tell great stories over a beer or two at the local watering hole. I envy her having the chance to know her in that way and wish I could have heard some of those stories.

West Valley had a rare chemistry teacher who so loved bad puns. Doc Phipps coached football and taught chemistry with the same intellectual honesty and sense of wry humor. His introduction to organic chemistry was front loaded with more puns than anyone could stand.

My tennis coach, Mr. Clark, was also my geometry teacher and he was the first teacher I ever had who made mathematics interesting. But it was on the tennis court where he left a very large mark. He always wore the same unnatural green warm-up suit to practice, and being small in stature, I took to calling him “The Jolly Green Midget.” We won’t mention the nickname he had for me. But he was a wonderful teacher of tennis, and his sense of mirth turned everything he did into a learning experience.

I found out later that he had served in Gen. George S. Patton’s Army and fought at the Battle of the Bulge.

Gonzaga University, back in the days when the Martin Center was still the baseball field, was a student’s paradise. If there were three or more people gathered in a group, it was a good bet they were having an intellectual discussion. So when the course catalogue outlined a series of classes called “Modern Intellectual History,” it sounded like a good way to clear those history requirements on my list of prerequisites.

Boy did I luck into a gem.

The course was taught by a memorable Jesuit priest named Father Gerald G. Steckler. He was a brilliant teacher who feigned a deep sense of pessimism for the word while challenging his students to not only embrace the subject matter but to challenge his assessments of current events.

This week I added Cheney High English teacher Monte Syrie to my list.

Syrie recently tweeted about one of his students, Meg, who fell asleep in his class. He let her sleep and explained why.

“She has zero-hour math, farm-girl chores, state-qualifying 4x400 fatigue, adolescent angst, and various other things to deal with. My class is only part of her life, not her life.”

There is a consensus in schools that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and Syrie acknowledged that allowing a student to catch a nap in class is nowhere on the list. Same with letting a missed assignment slide for a few hours.

“In a different room, Meg may have been written up for sleeping in class and given a zero for a missing essay,” he wrote. “But she wasn’t in a different room; she was in my room.

“My room. And in my room there are a lot of things I CAN do. I can’t control the outside. I can’t offer Meg a math class later in the day. I cannot feed her horses (many horses) in the morning or evening. I cannot run six race-pace 300s for her I cannot spirit away her teen trouble. But I can give her a break.”

Sometimes that’s all any of us needs in this life. A break.

Life can knock us all down and sometimes it seems that it doesn’t want to let us get back up. Especially when you’re a teenager and your own body conspires against you and growing pains grind on you figuratively and literally.

Syrie told a local television station that he wanted people to understand that there are things we should all consider about teaching and teachers than just the content we teach to kids.

“I get it, and I’m not suggesting that we make it a permanent part of the repertoire/routine, but I am suggesting that we sometimes trust our instincts, even if it goes against the grain, maybe especially if it goes against the grain, for I am not always convinced the great best considers kids.”

The teacher’s instinct was spot on. The break he gave her was the break she needed on that day and at that time. By 9 p.m. that night she had emailed him the missing essay, and when he ran into her at the grocery store at 6:45 in the morning, where she was grabbing some breakfast before that 7:10 math class. She’d already been up and tending to her chores since 5 a.m.

Monte Syrie has a gut worth trusting, and I would trust it with my grandkids any day.

Just as I would like them to find professors like the one who encouraged one of her students to bring her infant to class when her babysitter bailed on her. Not only did she welcome the child to the class, she spent most of the hour holding and gently rocking the baby.

There are no hard-and-fast answers to raising kids – of that we’re all painfully aware.

But sometimes the best thing you can do is treat them like a balky computer. Let them power off for a few minutes and then reboot themselves.

Because there are days when the best gift we can give the people around us is a little break.

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