Do you have a favorite teacher? On the other hand, do you still remember a nightmare teacher, someone who crushed your spirit or treated you unfairly? Teachers influence us all, for good or bad, and most of us have strong feelings about those who taught us. Supernatural addressed this topic in the episode "After School Special."
"After School Special" (4.13), which was primarily set in a high school in 2009, also gave us a look at the Winchesters' high school days back in 1997. Upon realizing that, I was prepared to see the common characterization of an inflexible, petty, dictatorial teacher who tyrannizes and belittles students. Instead, I found a compelling glimpse of an unsung hero - Mr. Wyatt. Though the scenes with him were short, Mr. Wyatt demonstrated several attributes of a good teacher, and, in so doing, he provided Sam with life-changing inspiration. If we consider why Mr. Wyatt had such a lasting impact on Sam, perhaps this model teacher's lessons can extend beyond his Supernatural classroom.
1. Good teachers are flexible.
Mr. Wyatt was flexible when Sam's paper didn't meet his expectations.The first thing I noticed about Mr. Wyatt was how he handled Sam's assignment. Since the paper was supposed to be about "your most memorable family experience" and since Sam turned in a story of his family killing a werewolf, the teacher could have given Sam an F (i.e. a failing grade). Instead, he chose to focus on Sam's skill, looking beyond the supposed fictional plot to the characters revealed in the story. A good teacher has to walk a delicate balance between knowing when to hold students accountable and when to give some leeway in assignments. Is letting a student get away with not following assignment parameters a way of honoring that child's creativity, or is it setting a precedent that that child doesn't need to follow directions? Teachers have to often make this choice, and a wise teacher tries to find the option that will best help meet each individual student's needs.
2. Good teachers are insightful.
Mr. Wyatt was willing to look beyond what could be a belligerent child and see the potential there. At first glance, Mr. Wyatt saw a new kid who wrote a horror story instead of the nonfiction assignment, but instead of assuming that he was a troublemaker or castigating him for failing to follow instructions, he saw Sam's talent. He didn't allow himself to be distracted by Sam's initial hostility when he said, "It doesn't matter. As soon as my Dad gets back, we're leaving, so you can flunk me if you want to."
Mr. Wyatt went past surface impressions of his student, and the superficial purpose of the assignment when, instead of focusing on the werewolf hunt, he evaluated Sam's portrayal of his family: "Aside from the werewolf, is that really how you'd describe your family?" A good teacher doesn't get distracted by trivialities but is willing to take the time to look deeper. This was, after all, the underlying purpose of the assignment: "I'm looking for the brutal, funny, maybe even painful truth," Mr. Wyatt had asked. When you give assignments like that, you can use that as a doorway to making a meaningful connection with students as long as you are willing to go beyond initial antagonism or lack of cooperation.
3. Good teachers seek connections with students.
This teacher took the time to connect with his student. It would have been easy for him to put an F on the paper and move on. Instead, Mr. Wyatt met with Sam after class. If he had five classes with 30 kids in each, he could be teaching around 150 students a day, yet, out of all those students, he noticed the new kid and reached out to him. He tried to relate by telling a personal anecdote of how he himself did not follow in the footsteps of his family -- he became a teacher instead of a surgeon. He also connected by using humor, first by joking when his students complained about the assignment by saying, "Yeah, yeah, my heart breaks for you," and later saying to Sam, " I traded in the money and prestige of being a doctor for all the glamour you see around you." Humor is one way of lessening tension between an authority figure and a student. Even years later, Mr. Wyatt remembers Sam because he cared about him and paid attention to the boy behind the writing assignment. A good teacher tries to establish a relationship with each student by showing interest and concern.
4. Some teachers are able to provide consistency for their students and the community.
When Sam returned years later, Mr. Wyatt was still there. In our highly mobile society and due to economic factors, we can't always stay in one place, and this is no criticism of teachers who've had to move from school to school, district to district, or even state to state. However, there is something special when you, as a former student, go back to your old school and see a beloved teacher, still there, still faithfully teaching. Because Mr. Wyatt was there, he was able to reconnect with Sam again as an adult and could hear about the impact he'd had on Sam's life. While longevity at a school is often not possible, when it is, it can benefit both student and teacher.
5. Good teachers model critical thinking.
Mr. Wyatt asked probing questions. When confronted with a paper that did not meet the criteria of the assignment and with a student that appeared uncooperative, Mr. Wyatt did not make demands, accusations, or assumptions. Instead, he asked questions designed to make his student reflect. His first question was in response to the assignment itself: "So you and your family killed a werewolf last summer, huh? Why would you write something like this, Sam?" Sam doesn't answer this, instead saying that it didn't matter anyway, so Mr. Wyatt kept focusing on the paper itself: "Is that really how you'd describe your family?" He also asks him if he's ever thought of pursuing writing, not telling him what to do but opening possibilities for him to see for himself. When Sam tells him he is expected to be a mechanic like his dad, the teacher asks, "Do you want to do the family business?" This is the question that captures Sam's attention. He says, "No one's ever asked me that before." It is this question that sparks the thought in Sam's mind that perhaps he could get away from the hunting life.
Twelve years later, when they meet again, during their brief conversation, Mr. Wyatt primarily asks questions, but it is the last one that is the most probing. He offers the somewhat trite aphorism that "the only thing that really matters is that you're happy," but then he directly applies that advice to his former student by asking, "Are you happy, Sam?" The episode closes with that thought echoing in our minds -- is Sam happy with the life he is living? A good teacher doesn't just impart facts but also asks questions to guide students to reflect on things they may have never considered before.
6. Good teachers encourage students.
Mr. Wyatt affirmed Sam by finding something positive to say. When Sam expected an F for not completing the assignment correctly, Mr. Wyatt instead told him, "It's good, Sam. It's really good. Have you ever thought about pursuing writing?" Later he adds, "You seem like a great kid, Sam." A good teacher doesn't just correct -- wielding that notorious red pen! -- but also tries to point out something good about a student.
7. Good teachers help students envision their future.
Mr. Wyatt gave advice that helped direct Sam's future. First, he asked Sam about whether he wanted to be in the family business. Then he offered this advice: "You don't have to do anything you don't want to do . . . There may be three or four big choices that shape someone's whole life, and you need to be the one that makes them, not anyone else . . . Just live the life you want to live." It is this advice that helps set Sam on the path toward Stanford, toward the normal life he yearned for. Years later, Sam told Mr. Wyatt, "I think I went to college because of you." A good teacher helps give students a vision for their future, offering them a new way to look at the world and at the possibilities ahead of them. This is the power of a teacher.
Of course, teachers aren't perfect. Mr. Wyatt fails to see Dirk picking on Barry right in his own classroom, and, even though we see him pursuing Dirk down the hallway, he is ultimately ineffective in stopping Dirk's bullying or in helping him change the antagonistic attitude which hid grief and loneliness. He also fails to reach Barry, who commits suicide, Teachers aren't miracle workers, and not every student can be reached or is willing to be reached. But good teachers try.
Humans have a tendency to glamorize celebrities, to value wealth and those who have it. But in this time of a worldwide pandemic, we are realizing the importance of those we have been labeled essential workers, not just doctors and nurses, but also farmers, truckers, janitors, grocery store workers, garbage collectors, and others. This experience has reminded us that those we once overlooked or didn't think much about are actually quite important. Truly, we are all linked; we all have importance and value. Supernatural depicts the courageous exploits of the Winchester brothers saving people and hunting things. Unquestionably, they are heroes! "After School Special" also shows us that, in their quiet way, teachers can be heroes too. Going beyond simply imparting information about grammar or Newton's laws of energy, they can include marginalized children; they can be a voice for the unrepresented; they can model acceptance and caring to those around them.
"He's a good guy," Sam says to Dean about Mr. Wyatt, then tells his former teacher, "I just wanted to thank you. . . I was a student here, and, uh, you gave me some advice once . . . You told me that I didn't have to go into the family business. You said I should make my own choices. . . I think I went to college because of you . . . You took an interest in me when no one else did. That matters, so thank you."
Teachers everywhere, what you do matters. Thank you.
Do you have memories of a teacher who positively impacted your life the way Mr. Wyatt influenced Sam? Which characteristics do you think a good teacher must have?