A Tribute to Alan W. Elder (1948-2010), Fifth Grade Teacher Extraordinaire

27 01 2010

I can’t help but post something about my favorite teacher ever, who passed away this last weekend.  I started to write about him for his family, for the school district, so that everyone would know how important he was.  And now I have put into words just exactly how important he was and still is to me.  So indulge me for a moment.  Great teachers deserve to be recognized.

As a kid, I always knew that I loved Mr. Elder as a teacher. It was because he thought that rock history was as a valid area of study and he somehow made memorizing all the presidents into a game. Plus, he insisted on teaching my favorite subject, math, along with my least favorite, social studies, and somehow made me like both of them better. That would have been enough, for anyone.

But as an adult and a future children’s/teen librarian, I have been looking back on my time with Mr. Elder to try and figure out how he did it—how he made so many fifth graders so happy to show up to school every day and actually learn something. Some of it is replicable, like the part where he insisted we outline our social studies chapters. I hated it then, but I know now how important that work was. It taught me how to think about and process what I read, in any subject, skills I have been using ever since I graduated from Hillside in 1995. That made a difference, but it isn’t what made me and both of my brothers and nearly everyone I know name Mr. Elder as their favorite teacher (and now you know the answer to all of his students’ security questions!). I was a tiny, nerdy ten year old with few friends in fifth grade, but Mr. Elder made me feel like a real person. Like someone who could have a meaningful conversation, who could be smart, who could make a difference without making a fuss. He had a knack for making his students feel that way.

I still have some vivid memories of that class, like the day when he had my classmate Teddy Chestnut go up to the board to teach the class how to do one of Mr. Elder’s challenging math problems. Mr. Elder sat in the back at his desk. Teddy asked for questions and Mr. Elder put his hand up. “Mr. Elder?” Teddy said. “Mr. Chestnut,” Mr. Elder replied, “you can call me Alan.” Everyone laughed but Mr. Elder didn’t let the class get derailed, he just sat back and taught, as Alan, from his desk at the back of the class. For me, that story showcases the essence of Mr. Elder. Some people work as teachers but some people are teachers. Mr. Elder was the latter. I know that the children I serve will benefit from his teaching because Mr. Elder has always been and will continue to be an inspiration to me.

Mr. Elder, you will be missed.