Thursday’s Teachers Who Inspired Teachers guest blogger Carolyn Skibba - an amazing educator and edtech rockstar - tells us all about a teacher who inspired her as a middle schooler and continues to breathe wisdom into her life as a teacher today. In this post, she shares her story and four great pieces of advice she learned from him, including how she’s now entered the “Dunning-zone”.
Mr. Dunning, by Carolyn Skibba
1982 was a big year in my life. Why, you might ask? The album Rio by Duran Duran? The release of E.T.? The premiere of Knight Rider? Important moments, sure, but that’s not what I’m talking about. This is an education blog after all. No, that year was momentous because it was the year I started middle school in the classroom of Mr. Robert C. Dunning.
How many of us remember the transition to middle school fondly? If you were lucky enough to live in Mequon, Wisconsin while Mr. Dunning was teaching, then your memories of middle school are probably as positive as mine are. Mr. Dunning’s classroom was a special place. I remember a reading corner with wonderful books for us to choose from. I remember Mr. Dunning’s humor, creativity, and weekly guitar playing. I remember how I felt in that classroom: energetic, curious, happy, and safe.
I haven’t seen or spoken to Mr. Dunning since middle school. But if I were to talk to him now, teacher to teacher, here are a few of the pieces of advice I think he would offer, as gleaned from memories one of my warmest and most wonderful years as a student:
Honor students’ interests and creativity.
In Mr. Dunning’s classroom, kids could make things and share them. One week, for my spelling practice, I chose to write a rhyming poem using all the spelling words. Mr. Dunning read my poem and invited me to create a poster of it to share. I still have that posterboard, covered in rhymes, orderly school-age cursive, and pre-teen pride. The project itself may not seem like a big deal, but Mr. Dunning approached this in a way that left me feeling important, appreciated, and smart. These feelings are the foundation of student engagement, and Mr. Dunning left each of us thinking: I matter. My learning matters. My ideas matter.
Mr. Dunning’s personality was part of every lesson, every interaction. He smiled a lot. Teaching can’t be canned, scripted, or automated. It is an art. Mr. Dunning embodied the art of teaching. And he did so in a way that was uniquely him. This authenticity and honesty inspired us to be open and invested in the classroom community. Mr. Dunning was always himself, and he was all in. Therefore, so were we.
Be principled, and help students rise to expectations.
Oh, the embarrassment.. I can still feel the shame I felt when Mr. Dunning found some pictures I had drawn to impress and amuse some of my new middle school friends. They weren’t exactly school material. When Mr. Dunning took me in the hall to express his disappointment and issue consequences, I wanted to fall through the floor. Not because he put me down in any way - it was because he expected more of me, and I hadn’t lived up to those expectations. He believed I was better than that, and you know what? I was. And he made me want to be that better version of myself. Lifting kids up to be their best is quite different from squashing them down in an environment of conformity and control. Mr. Dunning knew the difference, he helped each of his students begin middle school aiming to be our best selves going forward into this new phase of our lives.
Did I mention the guitar playing? We were happy in Mr. Dunning’s room. He was happy. Together, we were a community, and that starts with the teacher. Classroom community is just one aspect of a successful learning environment, but without it, collaboration, creativity, and curiosity can’t thrive.
When I started writing this post, I searched for Mr. Dunning’s name and learned that he retired just four years ago after a 41 year career as a teacher and a principal. This leads me to my final appreciation for this memorable educator. In a field often marked by burnout, high turnover, and diminishing prestige, Mr. Dunning had staying power. He spent his professional life dedicated to students and schools. As I wrap up my eighteenth year as a teacher, I feel like I’ve finally entered the “Dunning zone.” Too many teachers leave teaching before they get there. It’s that time in a teaching career where you feel like you can really see the big picture - where the ideas you have for your students can come to fruition in an effective and meaningful way, and you can manage the inevitable surprises and challenges with positivity and confidence. The “Dunning zone” is a phase teachers can reach with time, experience, reflection, and support, but you also need humor, creativity, energy, and passion. Thanks to Mr. Dunning, I have a vivid picture in my mind of what it feels like to be a student of a brilliant and expert teacher. I can only hope to create for my students an experience and environment like Robert Dunning created for so many kids over his incredible career.
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