The Amazing Mr. Stanton

By: Mike Garrigan, WFU Law ’19

No one messed around in Mr. Stanton’s class. The stout, well-manicured 11th grade English teacher always wore a three-piece suit. Patches of wisdom peppered his perfectly trimmed beard. With a loud and raspy voice, this feisty scholar commanded respect. But very few students feared Mr. Stanton. Nearly everyone loved him. He was the best teacher I’ve ever had. Law professors can be more effective by incorporating some of Mr. Stanton’s qualities into their teaching.

Mr. Stanton’s enthusiasm was legendary. If you were in his 11th grade English class, you can likely still hear the echo of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Mr. Stanton delivered it in the front of class standing on a chair, proclaiming at the top of his lungs “O Sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in…!” He offered similar passion for Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, although with less yelling. That I can still quote sections of the work we studied 25 years ago is a testament to his fire. Mr. Stanton personified Ralph Waldo Emerson’s observation: “[n]othing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Law professors must be enthusiastic. Students are slow to become zealous advocates if their teachers present the law tepidly.

Mr. Stanton found innovative ways to teach American literature. None of the teachers in my high school permitted notes of any kind during exams. Mr. Stanton was an exception, but with a twist. In the last five minutes of every quiz, test, or in-class essay, he shouted, “Go!” At that point, you were allowed to refer to any notes you had prepared. Ironically—and I think he knew this—the more thorough your outline was, the less you needed to refer to it, and the more you learned. Preparing an outline as a way to study is now standard fare, especially in law school. But at the time, I recall some teachers commenting negatively on his pedagogy. Perhaps law professors can follow Mr. Stanton’s lead by incorporating innovative tools into their teaching like “flipping the classroom,” or treating technology as a teaching tool rather than a prohibition. Maybe instead of cold-calling a student, the professor can ask her to tweet her “theory of the case” the night before class. Then, her 140-character summary can be a jumping off point for class discussion.

Mr. Stanton had creative disciplinary methods. At a baseline, Mr. Stanton expected every student to be prepared, to behave, and to participate. But when, for whatever reason, a student was unprepared, undisciplined, or disengaged, he found ways to motivate the student to turn things around without resorting to common, ineffective punishments. Rather than vindictively embarrass a student in front of the whole class for not doing the reading, Mr. Stanton would often have an eye-to-eye with the student after class. Rather than assign detention hall to a student for falling asleep in class, he would discipline the student by commando crawling—in a three piece suit—just under the desk of the student and then shouting “Boo!,” jolting the student awake. This was not a very nice thing to do, but it was creative and memorable. Very few people ever fell asleep in Mr. Stanton’s class. One time, Mr. Stanton caught me staring off into space during class. Rather than embarrass me, he simply rapped his knuckles on my desk and nudged me back into the material. Law professors can be similarly effective by first voicing their expectations to their students, but then, when a student falls short, compassionately and creatively encouraging him or her to rise to expected norms.

Mr. Stanton’s enthusiasm, innovation, and creative classroom management made the 11th grade American literature survey course one of the most enjoyable and memorable classes I’ve ever taken. Law professors may find themselves teaching the law better by taking cues from Mr. Stanton.

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