O Carrigan, My Captain

#formerstudentFriday is an occasional series during which former students and I team up on topics of their choosing. Through their voices and perspectives, we can level up in everything we do.

For our next installment, we hear from Robert C. Baumgartner. We all know a student like Bob. He boasts a dry wit, a deep passion for history and social studies, and a contagious affability.  I remember him, where he sat, and what we shared in 2002. He is an amazing person. In this piece, we are reminded of the power of human connection, a far greater content than that for which we are paid to teach. 

The United States Military Academy at West Point has a poster adorning the walls of the history department with the words, “Much of the history we teach was made by those we taught.” Typically, such a poster might seem overzealous and belching of one’s own platitudes, but in the hallowed halls of the Point, rightfully so.

Perhaps, as a teacher, one could amend the phrase to, “much of my history was made by those I taught.” Think for just a moment: every year a new mandate arises, whether it be from the state or a new district initiative, so some evolution is needed in our own teaching. However, I feel I owe most of my teaching evolution to my students. There were those who presented me with situations so outlandish and so preposterous that I learned better classroom management. There were also those who presented a situation so challenging or so rare that I carefully and thoughtfully intertwined compassion with duty.

During my undergraduate years, I had a professor at Rowan University named William Carrigan. He once told me that it was best to take a professor and not a class for you could learn anything from that professor since you embraced their methodology. Dr. Carrigan is to this day a cherished friend and mentor. I model much of my teaching philosophy from him and that is largely due to our relationship.

When I was a junior, I  experienced a grand mal seizure. I had e-mailed Dr. Carrigan to let him know I would not be in class and to discuss the make-up work. That was that, or so I thought. He had mentioned my absence to my class, all of whom were shocked as I was usually the first one there. Again, I thought nothing until a classmate told me that he was really upset about it.

This all made sense in 2011. I was completing my thesis for graduate school and undergoing radiation treatment at the time for a lymphoma. My thesis analyzed faculty attitudes in relation to intercollegiate athletics at the university level. Part of that research would be to poll the faculty about athletics. One evening I received an e-mail from Dr. Carrigan, but it was a group message. Unbeknownst to him, he had hit reply all by mistake and I read a letter to the faculty from Dr. Carrigan telling them that he had known me through 3 major medical issues, epilepsy, testicular cancer, and lymphoma, and attested that I was a diligent research student imploring them to take part in my survey.

Later, in my third year of teaching, I became the high school version of what Dr. Carrigan had been to me. I had lived how a teacher gave me such a tremendous gift because he thought highly of me. That never would have happened if he did not take the time to listen to what I was going through.

My students past and present have divulged things to me that I never thought I would hear. You cannot be prepared to be a teacher through classroom lectures on pedagogy.   It is the classroom of life that prepares you. Much of who you are comes from those you have met. If I hadn’t had Dr. Carrigan, I probably would be a different teacher. Not better or worse, necessarily, but I know I would be different.

That is how we we are changed. We pay attention to something important to our students. I challenge you to reach back into your memory of a teacher who did something special for you and think, how did that impact me? It was your impact on them as much as it was their impact on you. Remember:  you once sat in your students’ desks, just as your colleague, who is ready to retire next year, once did. We are not different inherently, only through our experiences.

Our students shape us far more than we may realize.

Robert C. Baumgartner is a history, law, sociology, and psychology teacher at Triton Regional High School in Runnemede, NJ. He is a member of the faculty advisory board of the Declaration Project at Harvard University where they are currently creating an educational video game for the American Revolution. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Camden County College and a member of the adjunct faculty pool at Kapio’lani Community College in Honolulu. He has been featured on The Rogue Historian Podcast and has spoken on several instances at the Old Baldy Civil War Round Table. He is currently working on a research project dealing with geography education in the United States.

One Reply to “O Carrigan, My Captain”

  1. Awesome read! Yes we all have a teacher or more that has shaped who we are. And for others, those that didn’t make a connection might be just as powerful. Life is the ultimate classroom. It is on the job training!

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