Although I’ve been out of high school for longer than I care to admit, there are still a few things that stick with me from those days as if it was yesterday.
I enjoy woodworking, and I rarely make anything in my workshop without thinking of my high school shop class. And nobody would have mistaken me for an athlete (I was a much better athletic supporter). But I did letter in track all four years, and today when I drive past a high school where a track meet is taking place, I’m tempted to stop and see if I can still do a couple of triple jumps.
My high school inspiration
But I owe my most influential experiences from high school to a gentleman named Darrel A. Sutter. Mr. Sutter taught American History, Economics and Sociology at Roanoke-Benson High School. But he educated us in much more than those subjects.
Instead of employing a text book to teach us to memorize dates and facts, he had us subscribe to Time Magazine. Each week, he assigned us selected articles from Time. We had to be prepared to discuss them in class. Each article required some knowledge of the historical events that preceded them.
At this time in the late 70s and early 80s, we were reading about OPEC, the Iranian hostage crisis and the presidential race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. To understand each of these topics required going back and learning about the historical events that influenced the current situation. Will Ted Kennedy be the democratic nominee? You need to understand events such as Chappaquiddick and how they would affect his chances.
A standing assignment was to read an editorial from the newspaper every day. Two colors of highlighters were required. One color to highlight the salient points the writer was trying to make, and another to highlight words or phrases we didn’t understand. Every few days he would do a spot check and walk around class to make sure everyone had done an editorial.
Mr. Sutter had a point system where he would reward and penalize you. If you made a good point in class or asked an insightful question, you got a bonus point – “plus one”. If you asked a question that had already been asked or, God forbid, looked at your watch during class, you got zapped a point (see A Zap and a Bonus System). If, during the editorial spot check, he asked you what a word meant that you hadn’t highlighted – zap one point. He had a way of zapping you a point that didn’t humiliate you the way many other teachers have a tendency to do.
Mr. Sutter never married or had kids of his own, but he couldn’t have loved his students any more if they were his own children. He was the sponsor of the student council and coached the scholastic bowl team. If someone had trouble in class, he spent time with them to make sure they understood it. Teaching was his life.
You could see the excitement on his face and in his voice when someone “got it”. He’d see a light bulb go on and knew that he’d gotten through to them.
He didn’t let you off with a mediocre answer. I remember many exasperating times when I answered a question. He’d think about it, look at me, and respond simply with “Better”. He’d give me a chance to think about it, struggle through a second try, and, if he still wasn’t satisfied, turn to the rest of the class with his pointer and say “Better”.
He could go through ten or twelve attempts – all good answers – until he got everyone in class racking their brains to come up with the best answer. Everyone knew that whoever got the best answer would get a ‘plus one’.
But I think the most important thing he taught us was to think critically. “Don’t just accept what the president, or the newspaper or your parents say. Listen to opposing views, think about it, and come up with your own opinion. Question authority.”
There were parents who didn’t like this way of teaching. They didn’t like their children disagreeing with their political views. It didn’t bother him when parents complained. He knew that if they were having these discussions at the dinner table, that he had done his job well.
I went off to college – and life – better prepared for whatever it threw at me because of Mr. Sutter’s tutelage.
Today, as I watch my own children attend high school, I can only hope that they have one teacher that influences them the way that he did me.
This past weekend, I had the honor to witness Mr. Sutter be inducted into the College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame at his alma mater, Illinois State University. Many former students were present to cheer him on and wish him well.
As I’ve progressed through my consulting career and worked with younger consultants, I hope that I’ve had a fraction of the influence that Mr. Sutter had on so many RBHS alums that he taught and guided throughout his career.
He could have taught at a much larger high school or even at a large university. But he chose to share his knowledge, compassion and talent at our little high school. Thousands of us are more open-minded, confident and willing to learn, because of Darrel Sutter.
Did you have an inspirational teacher or mentor in your life? How have you used that advantage to pay it forward and continue their legacy?
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