Favorite offbeat teacher or professor?

Mine is a psych professor who came to class with only chalk, a lighter and cigs. He stood right below the no smoking sign and smoked all through the class. He had tenure and he taught the whole class from memory. He was a very good professor too. He had a heart attack a few years later and then quit smoking. He was around 60 so I guess he had everything memorized. I guess if he was slack maybe someone would have complained about his smoking. they had just banned smoking in classrooms a few years before in 1978.

I was in high school AP physics and the professor was an eccentric to say the least. He often dressed in tweed, drove a Citroen DS with the air suspension, and never used chalk but would only use color markers on an overhead projector. The classroom was one of the few in school that had an attached office and if we’d ever be too chatty or unruly he’s slam the markers on the projector and flounce off into this office slamming the door. So we’d just sit there chatting for the rest of the period. That said, he was an excellent physics teacher and we really learned a lot over the two years we were in his class.

I had a college math professor who every class, it seemed like he never did anything but spend all his time answering out-of-the-blue questions from the students. And yet, by the end of the course, we had quite clearly thoroughly covered the entire curriculum of the course. I’m still not sure how he managed the class’s questions to make that happen.

Similar to what you described, one of my grad school classmates and I once went to a conference where we’d both be presenting ten-minute talks. We both had our presentations in computerized slideshows, of course, but with time constraints like that, you can’t afford to lose any time to technical difficulties, so we were both strongly encouraged to have non-technological backup plans. My backup plan was overhead transparencies (the conference room had an overhead projector). His was a piece of chalk in his pocket. Which he did end up using, and completely reproduced every one of his graphs, and every one of his long, complicated equations, completely on the spot and out of his head.

Had a really fun Number Theory prof. She was light, personable, witty, and made a potentially dull subject interesting. She was always betting cookies. “Now, I’ll bet you a cookie that this number turns out to be prime.”

Last day of class, a student brought in a BIG tray of home-made cookies. Best math class ever!

Certainly not my favorite teacher, but in High School, the football coach taught a geography class. Complete waste of space. I’ve always been good with that kind of stuff, so aced it.

Only thing he ever said that I remember was, in war, “Stay away from the Tank! Everybody likes to shoot at the Tank!”, and that while ordering beer in Germany, holding your thumb up meant ‘One’. Index finger meant ‘Two’.

A Bureau of Important Information.

had another professor who said “um” a lot. One day I started to count and he said it 90 times in 15 minutes and then I stopped counting. I counted by marking it down on paper. Girl next to me figured out what I was doing and almost started laughing.

Friend of mine had a instructor who brought coffee, bagels, donuts, OJ etc to class at 8 am right before spring break. And nobody showed up. He was not a happy camper.

Cerebus likes to amuse himself by counting the adverbs

I, too, sat and graphed the “ums” and “y’knows” of one of our speakers. Not as bad as yours!

My sixth grade teacher was a joyful terror. He was a big, jowly man, brilliant, demanding, hilarious. Following directions accurately was really important in his class: if a test required you to circle antonyms of vocabulary words, and you underlined the correct answers instead, he would give you a zero on the test (having warned everyone in advance about this policy). When he got tired of my desk being super-messy, he took it outside and tipped it out and told me to come back inside when I’d organized it. He was violently allergic to cats and hated them, and taught grammar using sentences that described terrible things happening to cats. We adored him and feared him in equal measures.

These days as a teacher I often ask myself, “What would he have done?” I don’t necessarily do the same thing, but it’s a helpful touchstone for me.

My 8th grade science teacher was an odd one. I loved her (but most people avoided her if they could, cuz she was weird) and it’s very much a part of the reason why I still love the hard sciences. In fact, years and years after I left that school (but still had siblings there) I gave her a giant box of all my model rocket stuff that I wasn’t using anymore.
For one of the classes (I believe she did this every year for that class), she’d show up in an old ratty wedding dress, using a high pitched sing-song voice and introducing herself as The Great Pheoc. To this day, nearly 30 years later, my mind still thinks “Great Pheoc, problem, hypothesis, experiment, observation, conclusion” when I need to remind myself of the scientific method.

My Latin teacher in high school was an elderly lady. She was a good teacher, but she easily got side-tracked into talking about Roman history.

Now, Roman history wasn’t on the syllabus. So… as long as we could keep her talking about history, we weren’t working. We would never be tested on what she was saying.

So students would keep asking her questions to keep her talking. ‘But why did Brutus kill Caesar?’ ‘Was Cleopatra just using Mark Anthony?’

The more intelligent and genuine the questions, the more likely she would keep talking. She would sometimes talk for half the lesson before suddenly realising that we should actually be working.

So over the course of a few years, we got to know all about the First Triumvirate and the Second Triumvirate, the Catiline Conspiracy, the Social War and the Lex Julia, Sulla’s reign, how Octavian rose to power, how the electoral system worked in the Republic and how it changed under the Empire, Roman politics, Roman marriage, Roman law, Roman slavery, the lives of Roman poets and writers, etc. etc.

Real history classes were boooring, and I dropped history as soon as I could. But this informal Roman history was completely painless because we didn’t have to know any of it, and it was fun because we were getting out of work, and it was told in a gossipy storytelling way.

The result was that I ended up with a deep and abiding love of Roman history and culture, and later, after school, a love of history in general and an appreciation of its complexities.

My high school German teacher. Not exceptionally weird, but he had his little eccentricities. I don’t know where or how I learned this, but he was from an Eastern European Jewish family – um, he never, ever said anything about politics, but I still find it curious that he wanted to take on a job teaching German.
The first thing we did in class, though, was to learn to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in German. Yeah, it sounds pretty authoritarian, but that’s the language for you. And I still know it by heart.
His other cute oddity was how he would teach us how say ‘thunder and lightning’ in German. Only English has the ‘-ing’ verb form, so in German, the expressions are, ‘It thunders!’ and ‘It lightnings!’. To demonstrate, he would excitedly exclaim ‘Es donnert! Boom! Boom! Boom! Es blitzt!’ and then flip the room lights on and off several times. Impossible to forget that.

I guess the most offbeat instructor I had might’ve been an art teacher I had for grades 4-6. She was quirky and seemed to enjoy making borderline naughty jokes for us.

I tend to take in the most from teachers who have a really complete grasp on the subject matter they teach. Two that come to mind are the instructor I had for American literature and the one I had for my calculus series. Both taught without any reference material and enjoyed answering questions and having discussions as opposed to some sort of traditional pedagogy delivered from the lectern.

The American lit. teacher was from Germany near the border with Switzerland and said he was a big fan of “trashy romance novels” like the ones you see at the grocery store.

The calculus teacher had a voluminous knowledge of math. I don’t know that he was ever stumped on even the most arcane math concepts. He also seemed willing to explain even the most basic concepts. I’m sure if pressed to explain why 1 + 1 = 2 he would’ve made a good faith effort to summarize Russel’s and Whitehead’s proof if it came to that.

My astronomy professor and advisor taught in a big lecture hall with three blackboards that would go up and down electrically. Behind them was a little stage area about 5 feet deep that served for demonstration equipment. On Halloween he’d arrange some volunteers to wear outlandish costumes and hide behind the blackboards before class. At some point during class he’d time the boards moving up and down so that the class got a brief peek at the volunteers who would be silently performing, which he would not acknowledge. Having been in the class some years, and one of the volunteers some years after, was a blast.

I wish I had the picture of him I saw once, dressed as a Druid priest, coming out of a shower, holding a dead pickled armadillo by the tail.

I had Brother Edward for 9th-grade chemistry. He liked to tell the story of a truck driver who drank Coca Cola all day long, until one day he drove over a bump and his stomach exploded.

I also had a high-school English teacher who drowned while saving one of his students from drowning.

The professor who taught the accounting class I took during summer session at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was from Norway, and had come to Madison for the summer to teach one class at the UW; he was actually a marketing professor back in Norway, but when he got to Madison, the business school said, “well, actually, what we really need is someone to teach this accounting class,” and he said “sure.”

He was maybe 30-ish, and he’d come to the U.S. with one small suitcase of clothing, so he only had three outfits, and we students started setting up a pool to see which outfit he’d wear each day. But, he made the class fun, and he had his “office hours” on the outdoor terrace at the Memorial Union every Wednesday afternoon, where he’d buy beer for any of his students who showed up, and tell us stories about Norway.

My 10th grade English teacher Mr. Brownstein. We started off by him having us read a poem called “the Dirty Word.” We then read the entirety of Wagner’s Ring in English, then did a unit on Freudian psychology. It was an Extra Honors class, so we were all motivated. At the end of the term we all went to his apartment for a party where we met his tall dark-haired wife and were introduced to Flanders and Swann.

Never, ever bored in that class.

My high school physics teacher was a slightly weird guy. For one thing, he seemed to teach using the Socratic method (although I didn’t know at the time that was it was called), meaning he didn’t really provide direct answers. And I took the first-year physics course early, with a small group that all went on to take AP Physics. Since we hadn’t had calculus in math class yet, he taught it to us, by having us do things like derive the acceleration of a moving object based on its speed and time. He insisted on proper language in experimental reports. (We were used to writing things like “in this lab, we did [whatever]” but he pointed out that the lab was the place not the experiment.) He wore old shoes that seemed taped together at times and was otherwise unfashionably dressed.

And he required us to obtain slide rules and then taught us how to do math using them. The idea was that using a slide rule required one to properly read a scale, and that’s important in the sciences. (I graduated high school in 1984, and by then slide rules weren’t easily available. I was fortunate in that my brother had been through his physics class a couple of years prior, so I got my brother’s slide rule. Other kids in the class went into stationery stores only to be laughed at when they asked to buy a slide rule.

He played tuba, both classical and in a local jazz band. (Googling his name, he still teaches music. This was in Connecticut, but I wonder if he knew TubaDiva; just how big can the tuba community be?) He graduated with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in physics from the “small liberal arts school” in New Haven that many of my teachers attended. One girl in my class suggested that he host an end-of-the-year party at his house, and surprisingly he agreed, so we all spent a Saturday afternoon at his house.

I suppose my favorite teacher was a fairly young woman who taught in my high school. She taught us in accelerated junior English and the next year the Shakespeare class (which put on a play every year in the spring). The play we did was Taming of the Shrew, and the Petruchio was uncertain that he would be able to pick up the slightly hefty Kate as required in one of the scenes, so this fairly petite teacher proceeded to pick me up in a fireman’s carry (I think it’s called) with no problem, to reassure him.

Of course, in those days I was something of a stick, being almost 6’3" and weighing under 160 pounds. But still.

My other favorite was our Russian language teacher, also in high school. She allowed my best friend and me to skip a year if we studied during the summer and passed an exam in the fall, which we did.

I have a story.

I had a favorite teacher in high school who had such an interesting and effective teaching style. He taught Calculus, the highest level at our high school, and he had a dramatic, very Dead Poets Society flair at the blackboard – so much so that he had literally worn a trench in the floor in front of the blackboard from all the pacing back and forth in front of it.

Homework was described as a series of “noble efforts!”. To get solutions, “when in doubt, grind it out!” What I loved about his teaching style was the heavy emphasis on putting in the effort. Not so much being right or smart or whatever, but taking the time to actually try. As high school students, we were inspired in a way that no other teacher at that school inspired us.

For example, in one lecture (I can only call them lectures, I don’t think any other high school teacher did it the way he did; it truly felt like a preview of college) he was explaining the point of inflection, and he had apparently overheard my friend Richard making the expected joke if you were in the 1980s … which we were. He said “This is the Point of Inflection, or PI. And now Richard has a joke for you…” as he dramatically paused and pointed his chalk at my friend Richard, who right on cue said “Magnum, Point of Inflection” … and everyone in the classroom cracked up.

He had a flair for lecturing about mundane mathematical topics. He cared. He was hard, but fair. Just put in the effort and you will pass, but not putting in the effort was never tolerated in his classroom. He loved the math. He loved teaching. No class of his was ever boring, which is amazing considering it was frickin’ Calculus!

He also had a bit of a drinking problem that we, as high school kids, could kinda sense the edges of, and catch whiffs of, but not really understand. The guy was intense, and in a good way, like Calculus INSPIRED him and he wanted to INSPIRE us to learn Calculus, too – not through rare genius, but through mundane, everyday, consistent application of effort. And indeed, I was inspired. I forgot most of my calculus, but I thought about him, and how he taught us, for years afterward.


I looked him up recently through a friend who became a coach at this high school, and later this teacher did something terrible. I don’t want to get into details, because it’s depressing, but let’s just say … he’s on a list, and incarcerated.

I was able to confirm this via a series of web searches which resulted in a mugshot that… yep, well, that was my high school Calculus teacher. Sad.

I wouldn’t call him my “favorite,” but one of my high school math teachers really stands out. In some ways, he was a fantastic teacher - full of energy and passion for his subject, and quite a showman. He was never without his meter stick for a prop, which he would constantly wave about for emphasis.

One day during my freshman year, a housefly was buzzing around the classroom. He wielded the meter stick like a bat, and damned if he didn’t squarely smack the fly. It dropped to the floor, instantly dead. The teacher was very pleased with that, and would still reminisce about the day he “batted a thousand” with a housefly three years later when I was a senior.

He was single all his life, having been dating a woman who became a victim of serial killer James Breest, the details of the situation being unsavory although not involving the teacher at all. IIRC, Breest was her ex-boyfriend or something.

My mother, never one to shy away from psychoanalyzing everyone within a two or three town radius of her social sphere, claimed that this teacher was a closeted gay man who subconsciously sought out women with “issues,” so that he’d have an excuse not to get too close to them, and that was why he dated a woman who was entangled with a serial killer. Then when she died, he had an excuse to be the heartbroken boyfriend who never dated again! (I don’t buy this story and think it says more about my mother’s capacity for judging people than it does about the math teacher. Yeah, maybe he WAS gay, who knows or cares, but that’s quite the elaborate story my mother cooked up.)

I didn’t love this teacher, even though he was pretty good at explaining mathematical concepts and left me with a life-long enjoyment of mathematical puzzles. Unfortunately, while he was charming and encouraging to all the girls in the class and the athletic boys, he was a horrible bully to any boy who was not an athlete. (This teacher was quite athletic himself and coached the boy’s basketball team.)

I will never forget poor “Harry”, a harmless, affable, usually spaced-out kid who sat in front of me my sophomore year and who was either waaayy too deeply involved in smoking pot, or was a neglected child, or both. He had long, fine hair that was always markedly snarled. The teacher teased Harry mercilessly: “What would I find if I looked in that hair of yours, Harry? How many rats’ nests in there, huh?”

The thing was, the school as a whole had an entire cult of adoration around this teacher, because of his larger-than-life personality, his imposing physique, and his coaching. Generations of students worshiped him. I never did, because I was so troubled by his bullying behavior, even though it was never directed to me personally.

Since this teacher died (and of course they endowed a big scholarship in his name!) I have confided privately in a couple of my contemporaries that I did not share in the seemingly universal admiration for this teacher. They somewhat reluctantly agreed that he did have a bullying side. But he taught well and he led the school to unexpected wins on the basketball court for years, so … all was forgiven. Except by me.