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Top-3 Teachers

Updated: Mar 2

There are Top-10 lists for songs, movies, and sports figures. Why not one for teachers, especially since they’re more important than songs, movies, and sports figures?

What’s astonishing to me is I was blessed to be taught by not just one of the world’s Top-10 teachers, but three of them! After so many years have passed since being with these people, I am still grateful for them because they greatly helped shape my life forever.

Who and where are the other seven? Maybe one of them taught you. Maybe you are one of them.

So, stay in your seat and pay attention. Raise your hand if you have a question. There will be a quiz.

I hope the world will always remember these three beloved people. With your help, I know it will.

William Joseph Clabby

9th-grade science teacher

Montgomery Jr. High School, San Diego, California

William Joseph Clabby

I consistently earned C's and D's in school prior to the 9th grade. This was because I had no reason not to. Why go through the effort to get better grades when they made no difference in my life?

My school counselors were concerned about me. One of them told me something that changed my life. She said, “When you get to 9th grade, colleges will be able to see your class grades forever. Your grades will then follow you for the rest of your life.

That evening, I told my mother, “When I get into the 9th grade, I’m going to get A's.”

I’m sure she gave me a hug and said something like, “Oh, that’s wonderful, honey.”

On the first day of class in the 9th grade, there was Mr. Clabby. He appeared in my life the moment I needed him the most. I've summarized below some of my memories of Mr. Clabby:

  • Mr. Clabby did what no other teacher in my life had done before or since. His “A students,” as he referred to them in class, ended up in the front row. I don’t remember if he moved us there, or if being on that front row somehow inspired us to become “A students.”

  • He kept a chart on the wall showing the ranking of all students in the class, labeled by a coded number. This way I could see how I compared with everyone else. Because his instructions were clear, I knew I could go as high on that chart as I wished. I knew it was up to me.

  • He was enthusiastic and funny, frequently telling us jokes related to his lessons.

  • His bathroom hall pass was an actual toilet lid painted bright orange with bathroom limericks painted on it in different colors.

  • He kept a number of reptiles in aquariums around the room including snakes, which he fed during class with live feeder mice that he also raised in his classroom. He would always tell us, “You don’t have to watch if you don’t want to.”

  • One time he brought in an entire cow heart. He told us he went to a slaughterhouse and asked if he could have a cow heart to show his jr. high science class. They agreed and put a cow heart in a cooler he had brought. He told us he noticed the heart was warm, so he asked the people at the slaughterhouse, “Do you keep it warm for some reason?” Their answer was, “No. That heart was in a cow a few minutes ago.”

  • Mr. Clabby’s chemical demonstrations were amazing! With a pocketknife, he cut off a small piece of metallic sulfur he storied in kerosene (or whatever it was) and dropped it in a large glass jar half filled with water. The sulfur danced on top of the surface before exploding like a firecracker in a flash of bright light.

  • In front of the class, he used electrical current to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, allowing the gasses to enter beakers in various ratios, and then ignite them using a match.

  • He asked us to come up with our own science projects and do them at home. We were then expected to bring the experiment to class along with a report of our objectives, observations, and conclusions. My report was on how a recorder worked (the musical instrument), complete with some math, figures of vibrating air, and some music for him to play on the instrument.

  • He asked his students to come up with a design for a “teaching machine,” a machine that would ask students questions written on plaques beside switches. If the student answered correctly by pressing the correct switch, a light would come on. He said he would give the job to only one student—the one who presented the best design. He also said he would purchase the hardware, as specified by the student’s design, so all the student had to do was assemble it. Mr. Clabby chose my design.

He saw in his students people who were greater than themselves, and he provided opportunities to help them achieve that greatness.

Dorothy Jean Worthy

11th-grade English teacher

Kearny High School, San Diego, California

Dorothy Jean Worthy

For whatever reason, I put off registering for my 11th-grade classes until the last minute. By then, the only English teacher available was Miss Worthy. My friends told me, “Don’t take her class! Everyone hates her. You’ll get a bad grade.” I had no choice, so I registered for her class.

Sure enough, she was extraordinarily strict. She gave us handouts describing specifically how our homework and quizzes and other assignments were to be formatted. This was before typewriters were readily available to students, and personal computers did not exist.

Instructions included:

  • The position and angle of the staple.

  • The position of our name on the top of the paper. How clearly our name was to be written.

  • The size of margins.

  • Expectations on class behavior.

  • She had us research a famous poet of our choosing, give an oral summary about him or her in front of the class, and then read a poem from him or her in front of the class with a musical accompaniment of our choosing. The manner of presentation was according to her specifications.

She emphasized precision and completeness. But instead of feeling burdened, I was empowered because I knew in advance what grade I would get. All I had to do was follow her instructions, and all would be well.

I got more out of Miss Worthy’s class than an A. She helped me understand that this world expects a great deal out of people. We can complain and blame, or we can follow instructions, be diligent, and produce.

I think my fellow students even back then were falling to the idea that what they wanted was what was most important.

As challenging as her class was, those of us who applied ourselves did well. If more teachers were like Miss Worthy, this world would be a much better place.

Robert E. Heninger

Music theory teacher

Mesa Community College, San Diego, California

Robert E. Heninger

I had no idea how unique Robert Heninger was until years after I attended two semesters of his classes. I thought all music theory teachers were like him.

Mr. Heninger published his own workbook (40 single-sided pages) for his four-semester music theory course. The only texts for the course were the following two books:

Workbook for Comprehensive Musicianship

by Robert Heninger

by Johann Sebastian Bach

Mr. Heninger told us he wanted to spare us from getting bursitis in the shoulder from carrying around heavy college textbooks.

He explained that he taught at San Diego State University for a time but resigned because professors at SDSU were expected to do everything but teach. So, he began working at Mesa Community College in San Diego, where he organized the college's music program.

Mr. Heninger was taught by Nadia Boulanger at the American Academy of Music in Paris. She was one of the most internationally renowned music teachers who ever lived. She taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century, including Burt Bacharach, Aaron Copeland, and Leonard Bernstein. She refused to teach George Gershwin because Gershwin had a unique style, and Boulanger didn’t want to ruin it. Among her other accomplishments, Boulanger was asked to organize the music for the wedding of Prince Rainier of Monaco and actress Grace Kelly.

“Anyone who acts without paying attention to what he is doing is wasting his life.

I'd go so far as to say that life is denied by lack of attention,

whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.”

-- Nadia Boulanger

Mr. Heninger composed a symphony performed by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. He arranged other instrumental and choral pieces played in New York City and elsewhere.

He brought no notes to teach from other than those two texts. He told the class that if we understood everything within the 40 pages of his workbook, we’d know as much about western music theory as the world’s greatest composers. He clarified that he didn’t put himself in that category, stating that he “wasn’t a musician, but a student of music.”

For each of his courses, the class size started with about 35 students and ended with about 7.

The following is a summary of some of my memories from Mr. Heninger’s classes:

  • In addition to handing in our homework compositions and assignments to be graded, Mr. Heninger had us perform them on the piano. I could not play the piano then, and still can’t. He told the class, “If you can’t play the piano, now is the right time to learn to play it.” Regardless of my piano skills, I went to the front of the class and performed every assignment I turned in.

  • We spent a great deal of time on the first page of music in his workbook (see figure below). The musical cadences represent all of the standard chordal progressions of every musical piece ever composed in Western music in the key of C-major since Bach. Mr. Heninger would have one of us go to the piano in front of the class and play a selection of those chords. But he didn’t just ask us to play them in the key of C. He would ask us to play them in any key he called out. We would have to adjust our fingers up or down the piano keyboard as required. There are 12 major keys--12 versions of the page below. The remaining 11 had to be in our heads.

  • When a student struggled with performing their assignments on the piano, he would tell the class with a big smile, “Don’t get mad at your fingers. If your brain knows what is going on, your fingers will obey.”

  • When a student had a particularly difficult time, he would say, “Don’t stop when you make a mistake!” He would sit at the piano and play a wonderful piece while intentionally playing wrong notes. He would then, without missing a beat and with a look of bliss, proceed to correct (“resolve”) each wrong note in a beautiful way, saying, “What wonderful mistakes,” turning each mistake into something lovely.

  • Mr. Heninger had us analyze the chordal progressions of Bach’s preludes from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Imagine trying to unravel the creations of Johann Sebastian Bach. This is what he had us do. Each of us, one student per measure, was expected to orally present to the class our analysis of each measure from each prelude. He would then have us perform each prelude on the piano. Because he wasn’t heartless, he allowed one student to play the left hand and another student to play the right.

  • Mr. Heninger would send all of us to the chalkboards surrounding the classroom, which were all lined with musical staffs. He would then play a random note on the piano. We were to write on the chalkboard the note we thought it was. If we got it right, we received an extra few points. Then, he would slowly play a series of notes without letting us see his hand. We would write the notes on the chalkboard as we heard them. This was in front of everyone. We received points for the number of notes we got correct. He would then slowly play chords and we were to write them on the board. We received points for every chord we wrote correctly.

  • He asked the class to call out all 12 tones in random order. He wrote the notes on the chalkboard as we said them. He then turned to us and said, “Your assignment is to compose a piece in four-part harmony using notes in this order. Somewhere in every chord must be these notes in this order. This we did, and each of us performed the piece in front of the class just before turning it in to be graded.

  • If a student yawned during class, Mr. Heninger would immediately ask the student, “Do you have something to tell the class?” The student would say, “No.” Mr. Heninger would then say, “You had your mouth open. You must have something to say.” This happened repeatedly throughout the course.

  • If students collectively weren’t responsive enough for him, he would describe his dream, a variation of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. This happened repeatedly throughout the course. With a smile, he would describe his dream, which went something like this:

“I have a dream. I come to class and all the students are sitting on the edge of their seats. Their eyes are wide open, and their pencils are sharpened. I have a dream. They are paying attention and are eager to learn. They raise their hands when they have a question. I have a dream.”

  • If his dream speech didn’t provide sufficient results, he would have us all stand and raise our hands high. After a moment, he would have us reach down to our feet. He would do the same. He would say, “Do you feel that warm feeling in your head? That’s blood.” After a moment, he’d sit us back down and say, “Now we can learn."

  • He used the word “alacrity” often. I had to look it up: “brisk and cheerful readiness.” This is what Mr. Heninger expected of us.

  • Once every few weeks, he would announce he had two free tickets to see the San Diego Symphony. He said he would give them to his best student. On one of those occasions, I was determined to win the tickets. This was because I had a crush on one of the girls in the class. She was an excellent student. My plan was to win the tickets and then invite her to the symphony! Eventually, I won them. I asked her to the symphony, and she accepted. It was wonderful. But she didn’t want to go out with me after that.

It was a great privilege for me to be a student of Mr. Heninger at Mesa College. He expected a great deal from us, but we exceeded his expectations. He knew we were far more capable than we believed, and he was right.

I will never forget Robert E. Heninger, Dorothy Jean Worthy, and William Joseph Clabby. I wish that every other teacher in the world taught like they did.

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