Classroom teaching, I am learning, is a bit about performance art.
That is, it’s more than simply the challenge of being interesting and entertaining enough to keep a room full of students awake and engaged. Classroom teaching is about being engaging while also communicating important facts, ideas and concepts — about helping your students learn without them realizing it.
I’ve only been at it for five years, teaching college journalism to 19- and 20-year-olds who’d often rather be checking out this weekend’s hookup prospects on Tinder. Luckily, I learned from the best.
Last week, I received news that Charles J. “Chuck” Leahan, who had been a legendary Spanish teacher and athletic coach in a trio of Archdiocese of Philadelphia high schools, died at age 69.
English — and slacking — not allowed
To call him beloved is a shameful understatement, he was adored. To call him a character is a slight. Señor Leahan had character.
In the classroom, his teaching style was a mix of authority and affection, with a bit of showmanship to keep everyone on task and involved. Always at his side was a gnarled, yard-long wooden stick, which Señor would use to whack the side of a desk for emphasis. He was generous with praise and direct with criticism, and English was usually not allowed in his classroom.
He taught me Spanish for three years, and many of my favorite memories of him involve me and chewing gum. I sat up front, being that annoying kind of student, with my dear friend Amy Welsh. He dubbed us “Los Dos Amys,” and he pushed us to try ever harder. Our interactions sometimes followed a pattern.
Señor Leahan would call on me to answer a question, knowing I hadn’t raised my hand. I’d start speaking, and he’d interrupt with a whack of the stick on the metal desk side.
“¡Oh no! ¡Señorita Z, tiene chicle! ¡Estas masticando chicle en mi clase! ¡Oh nooooo!”
WHACK! — went the stick, again on the desk, as I blushed three shades of purple and dragged myself to the trash can to throw out my chewing gum.
I should mention here that students were also “victims” of the stick — in the form of gentle taps on the shoulder delivered with a smile that made the corners of his eyes crinkle.
This was when you knew you were a favorite — when you knew it really bugged him that you were slacking off or making dumb mistakes.
It sounds bizarre, but with Señor, it made sense. In later years, the stick was relegated to a corner, but it remained in his classroom until he retired last year.
Learning from the best
He had learned to speak Spanish working on a cement-pouring crew as a young man, he told us. He had spent much of the Vietnam War on the door of combat attack helicopters, had been shot down more than once and was awarded a Purple Heart.
He didn’t have to tell us that he’d seen death and suffering, perhaps inflicted some of it himself. But when he looked at us, there was only love in his eyes.
I wonder now whether those experiences with the terror and horror of combat contributed to making him the gentle, loving giant we knew him to be. After what he’d seen, how could he not regard the everyday emergencies of a teenager’s day as what they really are: the blessings of youth and life?
Aside from teaching Spanish to thousands of us at Archbishop Kennedy, Kennedy-Kenrick, and Bishop Shanahan, he was also a coach and athletic director. He guided us through Spanish and through life.
We love you, Senor Leahan. You’re the best — your classes are so much fun, we’d tell him. That’s fine, he’d tell us, as long as you’re learning something.
I have found myself saying that very thing to my students, usually after I’ve done something goofy in the classroom, like burst into MC Hammer lyrics to explain the 1980s, or conduct mock crime-scene interviews with them and play every character, or tell them about Fatty Arbuckle and how the cult of celebrity wasn’t born on Twitter. It’s great that they enjoy my classroom antics, but it’s more important that they’re learning something.
Señor Leahan taught me that. He’s still teaching me. Gracias, Señor.