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The Influence of Good Teachers

The key factor in determining whether one likes or dislikes history (or any subject, for that matter) is the kind of teachers he or she has. A bad teacher can easily turn a student away from the subject, but a good teacher can dispel that negative influence and instill a life-long interest in the subject.

I've had both kinds of teachers, thankfully more of the latter than of the former, and they had a far-reaching influence on my love of history.

I suppose the teacher who first awakened me to the enjoyment of history was Mrs. George in fifth grade. It was through her reading contest that my eyes were opened to the vast expanse of interesting books on historical subjects that lined the shelves of our small school library. The Landmark Books by Random House were just the beginning, but they were the spark that set me on fire.

In junior high, I had two good teachers who furthered my interest in history and what was required to get the most from it. Richard Booher (left) helped me realize the importance of place (geography) to developing an understanding of history. And Frank Galbraith (right) taught me the excitement of history by acting out historic scenes in class. I can still see him (in my memory bank) rushing into the classroom and dragging a classmate from the room, calling out as they exited that he was going to make a sailor of him, all to illustrate the methods of Prince Henry the Navigator in developing a navy for Portugal and thereby initiating the Age of Discovery.

Then, in high school, Hubert Lakin epitomized the skill of mentally "seeing" history as it unfolded. He often taught sitting behind his desk (something that was anathema for one of the principals under whom I later taught). I often watched him staring out the window as he waxed quietly eloquent about some historic event, something he was "seeing" in his mind's eye. Suddenly, he would leap excitedly from his chair and pace up and down between the rows of desks, drawing some conclusion or making some application from what he had "seen" and had been trying to get us students to see from his description.

In college, I had several good history teachers, but two stood head and shoulders above the others. Dr. Edward Panosian taught History of Civilization to all freshmen, but his main teaching assignments were upper-level and graduate history courses. As a freshman, I sat mesmerized as he taught, awed by not only his vast knowledge but also his dignified manner and sonorous voice. I could hardly wait to take his upper-level courses. His much smaller senior course in Reformation history only increased my admiration for the man, and his love for his subject was contagious. So enthralled was I with his lectures that I sometimes forgot to take notes. I left the classroom mentally exhausted but inspired to imitate his electric teaching style.

I'm by no means the only one whom Panosian influenced. Among the literally hundreds of others so influenced was Asa Hutchinson, governor of Arkansas, who wrote, "I will never forget the passion of Dr. Panosian's teaching of history and the clarity with which he taught about two different world views that have defined our past. He instilled into me a love for history and how it can inform us as we address the challenges of this generation."

Finally, there was Dr. Carl Abrams. He spoke with a quiet, somewhat gravely voice, a stark contrast to Panosian, so I made sure to sit in the first or second row of his classes so I could hear. When I was unable to fit his class on the History of the South into my schedule because of my work schedule and the fact that the course was offered only every three or four years, he worked out a deal with the dean so I could take it.

I would meet him in his office after work once every two weeks, and he would teach me one-on-one. He gave me a long list of book titles related to Southern history on which he had highlighted ten titles that he dictated were required reading. I was to choose an additional ten titles and read two books and write a paper on one of the two books every two weeks and then meet him in his office to discuss them. At the end of the course, he gave me profound advice that I've employed in researching my own writing projects: Whenever you read a book, study the author's bibliography and read many of the books listed there. As a token of my thanks and appreciation, I presented him a copy of my first published book, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, for which he had been a great encouragement.

Following his advice, I will certainly never run out of books to read! More importantly, I'll learn more and have a vast storehouse of source material for my own future writing on historical topics.

Those are the teachers who fired my interest in history. What about you? Which teachers have influenced your own favorite subject and how? Please share in the comments.

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