Reflections on Education: What I Learned From My Favorite Teacher

Reflections on Education: What I Learned From My Favorite Teacher

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I had one outstanding teacher while I was growing up in San Francisco’s public school system: Mr. Leon Sultan. Mr. Sultan had just gotten a job at my high school, Abraham Lincoln High, but his name wasn’t in the school’s database yet. As such, when I got my schedule from my counselor, it read: Staff F, for American Democracy.

It was during roll call that I realized that "Staff F" was actually Mr. Sultan. When he called my name he asked if I remembered him. That's when I realized that he was the teacher who had replaced my eighth grade teacher in the middle of the year.

Now, in my sophomore year, he constantly challenged the class with thought provoking activities, such as debates and persuasive essays (often on current events). But what I think set him apart was that he paid attention.

I truly respected him, because he didn’t act as though he was better than his students, even though he was older and had gone to college. Sure, he is a very intelligent guy, but he was still ready to learn from anybody. He would hear out your argument in its entirety before speaking his thoughts. Of course, he would expect the same respect be given to him.

I think what he taught me more than anything else is to have an open mind.

As the year progressed, I saw a dramatic change in everybody in the class. People were contributing their thoughts constructively, building off each other’s ideas, and giving counter arguments in a critical manner. Whereas in a normal classroom environment the seats in the back might be the most desirable to a certain rowdy crowd, in Mr. Sultan's class it seemed as though everyone would come into class with the intention of sitting as centrally located as possible. They wanted to contribute everything they could to whatever discussion was set to happen that day.

Another teaching method that I found very effective, was his approach to group work. We would often split us into groups of four, each group with its own topic. Everyone in the group would then play a certain role. There was the facilitator, who would keep the discussion moving, the recorder who would write down the thoughts of the group, the resource person who had the responsibility of gathering resources, and the presenter, who would share with the rest of the class everything the group had discovered.

Through this method, Mr. Sultan allowed every student to embrace his or her strengths. This allowed us to become “experts” on one topic and teach the rest of our peers, as opposed to just being lectured at, day after day (this was never the case with Mr. Sultan). This is why I changed my whole schedule around in order to take his U.S. History class my senior year. His focus on current events was especially apparent in the 2008-2009 school year, because that was the year Barack Obama got elected.

Now, when I consider any issue, I can always think of an argument, and a rebuttal to that argument, which is reminiscent of Mr. Sultan’s class, where one of the thirty other people in the room was sure to disagree, if only to play devil's advocate. Mr. Sultan himself seemed to enjoy fighting for a point in order to make us think about why we felt a certain way on an issue.

Thinking back on it now, I am probably a more open-minded person because of my two and a half years in his class. I still know that if I were to go and visit him, he would listen to what I had to say about anything with an open and critical mind, because he really cares.

Aaron Mott is a youth intern and writer for New America Media