Here’s a “question of the day” for you — and really think about it, it’s the last one you’ll get from Aberdeen High teacher Dr. William “Doc” Carter.
“What is the good life? How can you best achieve the good life?”
It’s a question Carter’s spent more than four decades answering.
He shared his last question as he prepared to retire after 42 years at Aberdeen High, and while many of his students remember his sense of humor and passion for teaching, what they seem to remember best are his informal Socratic seminars. The question of the day was a staple, and ranged from favorite foods to students’ stances on sensitive political issues of the day.
“It’s essentially teaching with the Socratic method, and the idea is you can use it in relation with an entire lesson or you can use it as a class prompt,” Carter said.
He tried writing down his class prompts, and has collected 631 posed to many of what he estimates have been about 5,900 students.
Jacob DeBoer was one of them in 2000. Asked about Carter, he immediately remembers the teacher’s knack for engaging students.
“He did a really good job of involving the class and getting us to talk not just to him, but to each other as well,” he said. “His question of the day was a nice part of the class, a really intellectually stimulating part of the class. Some days he’d ask a really interesting or a really sensitive question and just talking about it would take most of the class. Sometimes it got heated, but it was fun.”
His sister, Allison DeBoer, had Carter in 1996 and remembers the question of the day vividly.
“One time he asked us if we could have any wish right now, what would it be, and it ended up getting the class in a debate over whether it would be better to have something that would be temporarily good or something long-term,” she said. She now teaches English and philosophy at Grays Harbor College, and says Carter was always a favorite teacher and helped enhance her love of both subjects.
The student engagement was a big part of Carter’s goal in all of his teaching.
“So many kids were absolutely afraid to speak up in class — they’d never had to do it. In my classes, every student, every day of the year had to speak at least once,” Carter said.
Over time, he added, they just got used to speaking and sharing their opinions, and he would see numerous hands go up to answer questions rather than just a few regulars.
It was a special gift of Carter’s, said Cory Martinsen. He had Carter twice as a student at Aberdeen, in 1999 and 2001, and he’s now the shop teacher there.
“Doc did a good job making every kid feel like that was a place they had a voice and they were accepted,” Martinsen said. “He has a really strong presence in the classroom. Not in a dominant, dictator-type way. Just his demeanor. He was always calm and kind of even-keeled.”
Carter mainly taught English in his time at Aberdeen, which wraps up this week, but he also taught American literature and competitive speaking.
He remembers coaching competitive speaking with great pride; when he took it over in 1970, Aberdeen had the worst team.
“People would laugh at us because we were so awful,” Carter recalled. He tried to get advice from other coaches, but they weren’t very interested in coaching coaches, he said. He resolved to find his own way of doing things.
“Four years later, and we’d go to a tournament and kids would say, ‘Cripes, Aberdeen is here,’ ” Carter said.
Before he came to Aberdeen, he started his career in the Peace Corps, teaching in the Caribbean for two years after graduating from the University of Montana with a bachelor’s in English.
“It was quite an eye-opener to live in another culture in-depth. I think it showed us all what it was to be an American and to see ourselves in the the eyes of foreigners,” Carter said.
He met his wife, Diane, while there, and although they parted for graduate school, they couldn’t stay away. Carter said she came to visit him shortly after he earned his master’s degree, and he proposed on April Fools Day. Not long after, the young couple found themselves in Aberdeen when he found a job teaching at the high school.
The plan was to stay for a few years, possibly until the job market improved. It wasn’t long before the Carters came to love their new home, and became part of the community. Diane got a teaching job at Grays Harbor College, from which she’s also retired.
While he was here, he became “Doc,” earning his doctorate in education from Seattle University, along with his principal’s and superintendent’s certificates.
Carter said Aberdeen has been a wonderful place to raise a family and grow as a teacher, and he was especially grateful for the support of his fellow teachers and Aberdeen High administrators.
“The administration of the school and district has provided me and all of us an extensive and truly outstanding education over the years,” he said at a farewell party for retiring staff on Friday. “There is quite the investment in each of us as teachers to assist in raising us to our highest possible selves.”
Carter hadn’t been at Aberdeen long when Janice Williams had his class in 1977. She was his student before the question of the day, and before he was “Doc.”
“He was great, I was excited when my daughter got him,” Williams said. “He was just full of knowledge and passed it along.”
She remembers writing a journal for his class, which he took the time to read and respond to. Williams does something similar with her fourth-grade students at Robert Gray Elementary.
When Carter’s final school bell rang yesterday, he set out to start on the lengthy backlog of reading he hasn’t found the time for. He said he’ll start with re-reading some old classics, like Rene Descartes, exploring philosophy, and eventually move to more modern genres.
“I’m really, really looking forward to reading as well as writing. I entertain the notion that there are two novels I could write. I don’t know if I could say something others find worthwhile or not,” he said.
He adds that he won’t miss the schedules and timelines of school, but will miss the students.
“It’s interesting because I’ve been fortunate to teach honors and Advanced Placement English, and those are fun because you get highly motivated students, (but) I have favorite subjects, I don’t have favorite students,” Carter said. “When you teach to the students, they’re all really neat kids. They may not all be equally as bright, but they all have something to give.”
Asked what mark he hopes he’s left the 5,900 who have passed through his classroom, he said, “To be good listeners, be kind and considerate of others, and I would say enjoy learning and become life-long learners. It truly is a good thing to do.”