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Posted at 12:26 PM ET, 06/25/2010

The long-lasting power of a great teacher

By Valerie Strauss

My Post colleague Michael Birnbaum wrote the following about one of his teachers with whom he had an uncommon connection. He just learned of her death.

By Michael Birnbaum
I’ve been thinking these last few days about how quickly a really great teacher can get through to students – and how little the subject material has to matter.

I was lucky to have one of those teachers for beginning French class my freshman year of high school, luckier still because it was the last class Maureen Breen Putnam taught before she retired.

Madame Breen, as we called her, clearly loved what she was doing. Her Chicago classroom was stuffed with trinkets – souvenirs of Paris, Gallic witticisms, dioramas of French architecture – and her 14-year-old charges muddled cheerfully through bits of Albert Camus, listened to Edith Piaf and watched plotless, philosophical French movies that she showed on an old television that she wheeled into the room.

Once or twice she brought her accordion to class to lead us in song, something that stayed with me because that semester happened to be my first and last attempt at the instrument myself. We chatted about it; I’m sure she was amused at my interest.

But what really stuck was her sheer delight in teaching for the sake of teaching. She could have been teaching quantum mechanics and had as captive an audience, and she didn’t need many resources to pull it off at an urban public school that occasionally ran out of copier paper.

Her cheer at the front of the room, singing songs she had written to help us memorize verb conjugations, made pleasant what could have been a grind. Her playing us a 50s-era ballad about the Algerian war of independence sparked an argument about French history and justifications for fighting that sucked in even the most reluctant French student. Her willingness to tolerate the silliest language slip up so long as it was in the service of discussing a favorite poet helped us realize that French wasn’t just a theoretical exercise; it could be pressed quickly into service.

Those months with her certainly propelled me through another three years of high school French classes, none of whose teachers could hold a candle to Mme Breen. It didn’t matter; I was already hooked.

She and I stayed in touch, trading emails and the occasional lunch, through high school and then college. I kept her updated on the progressive rustiness of my French, then the growing rustiness of other languages I studied along the way; she let me know about her trips to Paris, her poodle and a conservation battle she fought in an ecologically sensitive part of Michigan.

The last time we wrote, which was a couple years ago, she reassured me that I need not worry about forgetting every last word of French I had learned.

“Think of it as a part of you (a monkey, a faithful dog, a parrot, a cactus plant) that needs to be fed and watered every so often so that it hibernates. Hibernating is good, death is not, so throw it a crumb every once in a while and it will be your faithful friend all of your life,” she wrote.

Her husband called my parents’ line Wednesday, trying to find me. Mme Breen had taken early retirement after my freshman year of high school because she was battling breast cancer; after many years, she died from it Tuesday at 62. She had asked her husband to let me know after her death.

To my shock, she left me one of her accordions, meaning that once more I will learn from Mme Breen.


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By Valerie Strauss  | June 25, 2010; 12:26 PM ET
Categories:  Teachers  | Tags:  great teachers, great teaching, powerful learning experiences, teachers  
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Posted by: edlharris | June 25, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Nice article.

Posted by: celestun100 | June 25, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for a lovely story. Teachers really need to hear during these difficult times.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 25, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

One more point: Even though I am a grandmother, I still correspond with my high school English teacher. He was only about 23 years old when I was in his class so that's why he's still around! Every time I receive a card or letter from him, I feel the glow of a student whose teacher makes her feel special.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | June 25, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for a lovely tribute to Madame Breen and for putting into words the loss that so many of us former students feel at hearing this sad news. She was an incredibly special person.

Posted by: IKO0806 | June 29, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

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