The Common Good
September-October 1997

Those Who Can, Teach

by Carol Fennelly | September-October 1997

A passion for education.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner once said, "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." Often what makes for a quality education is not the reputation of the school, or the wealth of the community around it, but the passion of an individual educator for teaching.

With that definition, Robert Hoderny, who taught social justice at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C., was the truest of educators. Robert was one of those teachers students never forget. I knew him for two decades, spoke to his classes, and my own son was his student. He was a gifted teacher who died last winter at age 48—far too early—after being hit by a car. At a time when educational excellence is taking a nose dive, I cannot imagine a greater tragedy for teaching.

Once I was at a ticket counter at National Airport with homeless activist Mitch Snyder. The ticket agent looked up and said, "Excuse me, Mr. Snyder, I learned about you in school. You see, I was in Mr. Hoderny’s class." That happened to us often over the years, a testament to education that survives.

During the school year, Robert’s students studied a host of issues current to the day—homelessness, handgun control, war and peace, and so on. He didn’t just present one side of the story. For instance, when his students studied gun control, they heard from the predictable sources as well as from the NRA.

A successful school does not exist as an island, but engages the community around it. It was that community which was Robert’s classroom. Each Saturday his classes staffed the Zacchaeus soup kitchen. It was a requirement to pass his class. At least once each school year, Robert’s students planned a demonstration on an issue that grabbed their attention, and then carried it out. He taught them that being a citizen in a participatory democracy means participating.

Education must be a two-way process. Robert found as much amazement in his students as he did in his subject matter. My son came rushing in after school one day waving a Snickers candy bar. He told me he had gotten a "woof" from Hoderny. He explained that whenever someone said something inspiring or profound in class, Robert gave an excited "woof" and presented a candy bar, which he kept loaded up in a drawer for just such occasions. I think that was the high point of my son’s entire academic career.

TOO OFTEN WE EXPECT too little from our young people. Robert demanded, and usually got, the most from his students. His teaching techniques were unconventional and brilliant and loud. His passion for peace and justice—and more important, his passion for teaching—drove his classroom. One time his students hadn’t done their homework, and he was in a fury. He announced to them that if they didn’t care enough about the class to do their work, neither did he, and stormed out of the room. The students sat there amazed, too shocked even to speak, then one by one they dragged out their books and began to do the neglected work.

My children and I lived in community with Robert in the mid-1970s, when my son, Shamus, was just 5 years old. Robert started trying to persuade me even then to send Shamus to Carroll. He was dedicated to his school and committed to seeing as many young people as possible get a fine education there. Sometimes, out of his own pocket, he paid for books or tuition costs for needy students. In my son’s case, he lobbied for a scholarship and then paid for his books.

I learned about Robert’s death at a family function. Someone unfamiliar with him wanted to know who we were discussing. My son replied, "One of my teachers." He paused, then quietly added, "No, one of my friends." That was the thing about Robert. He was always a teacher, but he loved his students so absolutely that they also knew he could be counted on to be their friend.

Education requires more than just the imparting of facts—critical thinking and values are also a part of the curriculum. Robert encouraged his students to disagree with him and then defend their positions. Too often that kind of education has been replaced with the imparting of data, and students are not transformed. "Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten." That also sounds like a definition of immortality.

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