Your Greatest Teacher, Your Greatest Lesson


One day in the mid-1970s a freckle-faced nine-year old boy walked into an unremarkable public school classroom in Taree, a small town on the east coast of Australia. He sat down by himself. He was a quiet, shy boy who had been taught that his voice did not matter. These things he had learned from being physically and mentally abused by his parents and siblings. That day he looked up to see the teacher standing at the front of the room. He was a physically imposing young man, almost thirty, with long blonde hair and bronzed skin, darkened from the many sun-baked summers he had spent as a voluntary surf-lifesaver. When the teacher spoke, it was with a powerful voice. He introduced himself as Mr Vandenbergh. But everyone would come to call him simply, “Mr V.”

The boy was initially somewhat afraid of Mr V, as his experience of adults was that they were unpredictable and violent people, who could lash out unexpectedly, who would project shame and rage for no apparent reason. Yet the boy also detected something within the teacher that he had rarely encountered before. It was like a positive life-force bubbling up from within the man. Although the boy was unfamiliar with the attitude, he would later come to realise it as that intangible human quality: affection. Mr Vandenbergh acted and spoke strictly, but the boy could see that it was something of an act.

The teacher liked asking questions to the class. Now, the boy had never been asked questions before. All his previous teachers had assumed that his reserved nature reflected his inability to understand. His parents and teachers had always treated him like he was stupid, and he had come to accept that as true. Yet for some reason the boy felt more confident around Mr V. So he started to answer some of the teacher's questions. Unbeknown to the other school teachers, the boy was a veracious reader, who had spent much of his fee time in the school library and at home reading about things like Geography, Astronomy and History. So it came as a shock to some when the boy began to answer even the most difficult questions the teacher put forward. Whenever the boy answered, Mr V would respond in a booming voice, praising the boy for his seemingly endless general knowledge.

Slowly, something remarkable began to happen. The boy began to gain self-confidence. His schoolwork improved in all areas. In particular he loved writing. One day, he submitted a thirty-page story to the teacher. The story came back the following day with Mr V's comment: “This is the best I have read for many years.”

The boy could barely believe it. Suddenly his entire idea of himself changed. No longer was he the slow child, the one nobody would listen to or care about. Now there was a part of him that knew he was smart. He quickly came to love the school and learning. Most of all  he came to love Mr V in that way that only children can love an adult, with wide-eyed wonder.

I know that little boy's story very well, because he was me. You probably already guessed that.

Looking back almost forty years, I see very clearly that being put in Jeff Vandenbergh's  class in the fourth grade was probably the turning point in my life. He gave me a self-belief that was simply missing before that time. It wasn't that he cured me of all self-doubt, or completely erased the idea of my being stupid. In fact, these self-beliefs would rise again and again throughout my life (they still affect me to this day, to a degree). At times my performance as a student in high school and university waxed and waned, along with my self-concept. But I persisted, eventually completing university and gaining a PhD in my 30s. Beyond any self-doubt, there remained that self-belief, instilled in me by Mr V: that I too, am smart.

All adults are teachers, whether they come to work at the chalk face or not. We are all teachers because all of us have relationships with children and young adults. We have the capacity to transform their lives. And that grants us a very special power, and a very great responsibility.

Consider this.

Research conducted by Harvard's Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson at an elementary school in San Francisco in the late 196os reveals just how powerful teacher expectation can be. They gave all K-5 students an IQ test, but called it the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition”, claiming it could predict which students would soon succeed at school (no such test has ever existed). They then told the teachers which students had performed best. This was a lie – the names were selected at random.

The results were remarkable. The students who were expected to do well gained an average of 17-28 IQ points in the following year. It was concluded that the large increases resulted from the teachers' subtle expectations. Incredibly, even students not named as being expected to improve increased IQ scores significantly. This was probably because of the so-called Hawthorne effect, where performers improve simply from participating in a study. It is also reasonable to assume that both the students and the teachers felt important, knowing that renowned scholars had travelled the breadth of the country to study them.

But how can this be? If IQ is a single, static entity inside people's heads, how is it that expectations and self-expectations can modify it? The truth is that in the past twenty years science has changed in its understanding of both genetics and the brain. Not all genes are merely inherited by an individual, then activated according to some pre-set programme. Our environment has a huge impact on how genes express themselves. This is called epigenetic variation. Of course, there are ongoing debates about how much genes – and human intelligence – are malleable. Notably, debates in intelligence theory have kept pace with such ideas, and many researchers now believe that intelligence is a multifaceted phenomenon which is influenced by “nurture” as much as “nature.” Neuroplasticity has become a buzzword in brain science.

Thus it is that expectations – both our own and others – influence our behaviour in all things we do. They greatly impact the way we live our lives. Often we carry within us self-limiting beliefs about what is possible within a given situation. While it is true that all situations contain inherent limitations and restrictions, we typically vastly under-appreciate the possibilities open to us. In his autobiography, Richard Branson describes how he became very depressed when he turned forty. While he does not say why this was the case, it is reasonable to assume that the idea of “I am now forty” contained a great deal of negative baggage for him.

Ask yourself this question: Do you allow age, education, social status or other intangibles to affect the way you engage life or particular situations?

Richard Branson is a very adaptable man. He soon snapped out of his self-generated malaise, and continued to be the very successful man he is today. Yet many of us never see how we have unconsciously painted ourselves into a corner. We may stay there for a long, long time. Maybe forever.

Life is full of situations where we impose our beliefs and limitations upon the world. Often we have been told certain things are indisputably true. At other times these “truths” are implicit in media and culture, or we have unconsciously taken them on.

What is worse, we often impose our expectations of others upon them, delimiting their potential – merely through our attitude.

The key, then, is to become aware of self-limiting beliefs about ourselves, and about others and the world. And becoming aware of such inner narratives does not necessarily require hours of self-therapy or regression into distant childhood memories and past lives (although in some cases, it might). All you have to do is observe your own attitudes and behaviours. Are you acting with positive expectation, or are you avoiding action, complaining, or playing victim? If it is any of the latter, is there a belief which is holding you back?

Sometimes well-meaning social policies by governments, or even world-views generated by sub-cultures can be very self-limiting. You may be labelled a victim according to sex, sexual preference, race or culture. But if we adopt the self-concept of a victim – with world and other as oppressor – then that story will tend to limit the kinds of actions we take in our lives. Such labels can be obvious, but they can also be subtle. In conspiracy theory culture, for example, there is an implicit belief that people are dark and greedy, that the world and the human species cannot be trusted. Such a culture implicitly legitimizes rage against the world. It “believes” that “the sheeple” are helpless, ignorant victims. This is not a great narrative from which to take empowered, confident action for the greater good of humanity.

Anger is fine, as long as it is employed in creative – rather than destructive – ways. Gandhi and MLK are fine examples of the former. Bin Laden and Charles Manson are examples of the latter.

In a many ways, life is about learning to observe ourselves with love and compassion, then sharing that wisdom with the world. There's a grace that naturally emerges when we bring the dark and hidden aspects of our minds into the light of awareness. For me it started all those years ago when Mr Vandenbergh saw the light in me, and initiated the process of drawing it out. He had expectations of me that I did not have of myself.

To this day I remain in deep gratitude to Mr V. Still, there is just one thing that I regret. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to write him a letter of appreciation, to tell him how he had changed my life. How he had always been an inspiration to me. I wanted to thank him for believing in me when nobody else did.

Sadly, about a year ago I found out that he had passed away at around the age of fifty, from leukemia. At the time I learned this I was in my childhood home town, visiting my elderly mother, who was also ailing from motor-neurone disease, and in her final days. I was told that there was a plaque in honour of Mr Vandenbergh that had been laid down in the tiny sea-side town of Old Bar, just a few kilometers away, where Mr V head lived. So a few days later I made the pilgrimage out there, by car.

I parked my vehicle outside the Old Bar Surf-Lifesaving Club on a bright, sunny winter's day, stepped out and began to walk towards the beach area. It was with a heavy heart that I found that plaque, and the beach platform that has been named in Mr V's honour. Remarkably, these things were erected in memory of his service to the surf-lifesaving community, not for his teaching. You can see the photos I took, below.


mr v plaque

mr v platform

mr v sea

I stood there looking at the plaque for several minutes. Yes, I felt deep grief, and some regret. Why had I not sent that thank you letter years before, when he was still alive? He had lived and died, and I had never gotten the chance to thank him. Yet I knew there was a part of Mr V that still lives on in this world. It was within me, and it remains in all the other students and people he had touched in his short time on Earth. What he taught us remains within our spirits.

I walked up onto the wooden platform that had been erected in Mr V's memory and stared out at the vast expanse of Pacific Ocean before me. As I stood there alone before that beach, a man of middle-age, I realised that I now had the power to share Jeff Vandenbergh's wisdom with others. Indeed, I knew that it was more than a mere capacity. It was a responsibility.

Such responsibility I humbly accept today – not only in my current work as a teacher, but with my writing and in my role as a life coach. And it is something I can bring to my everyday interactions with others of all ages.

Such gifts are amongst life's most valuable treasures. We cannot place a monetary value on them, but they fill us with gratitude and Grace.

Thank you Mr V, for teaching me that.

Your student,


PS. Feel free to mention your favourite teacher(s), in the comments, below. Tell others how they changed your life. I would be happy to hear about them.



Marcus T Anthony (PhD) is a futurist of the human mind, writer and spiritual adviser. He is the author of Discover Your Soul Template and many other books.

Marcus posts a new article on CLN every Saturday. To view his articles, click HERE.


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  1.' Nicholas says:

    At the tender age of 6 I started taking Piano Lessons with a sweet lady named Inge-Britt Åkerblom. My dear Mother (RIP) had recognized my musical talents, so she took me to my Piano Lessons with Inge-Britt for many years.
    Without her guidance, I would not have become a Professional Musician.
    Fortunately, Inge-Britt is still around and although we are separated by great distance, I have been able to express some of my gratitude to her on Social Media.
    Thank you again Inge-Britt, for your pariente, gentle manners, inspiration and kindness during those lessons so many years ago.
    Thank you. You rock!

  2.' Shelley vandenbergh says:

    What a beautiful way you have with words!
    You are not alone in your experience with Mr V, he touched many lives the way he touched yours, but to have your experience in words for me to read over and over is a gift! I’m so truly happy that life placed you in Mr V’s class in grade 4, he would be filled with joy and bursting with pride with your achievements, not only academic, but to have become a good, strong, kind person! I know these were traits that he valued most, because I was not only lucky enough to have him as a teacher, but as the most inspiring Dad I could ask for!
    Sending warm wishes!

    •' Chris scerri says:

      Mr vee always called me cherry pie he was a lovely funny happy guy and he loved the sea and surfing always as a teacher and a well liked at our school , thanks for all the great years at taree public and you will be always remembered for the lovely man you are thanks so much mr v champ to u all .

  3.' Liz Fitzgerald née Vandenbergh says:

    Hi Marcus – I am still a little speechless after reading your piece. Jeff is my brother, ten years my senior and always someone I looked up to and idolised. He always had a special connection with children, even younger siblings such as my younger brother and me, who must have been quite annoying, following him around like puppies whenever we could. I can not remember an unkind word from him ever. I took up teaching myself because of him. He had a very special connection with the ocean and I am aware of him every time I am near the sea. We have recently moved to Cronulla and Jeff is always near me as I walk along on the beach or swim. He was / is an exceptional human being who has inspired you to be the exceptional human being that you are. No doubt there are many of us out there in the world, better people for having known him. I agree with you – pass it forward.

  4.' Bill Knight says:

    Marcus. I would like to echo the sentiments of Liz and Shelley regarding Jeff. I played rugby with Jeff and his son, Greg was one of my best friends when we were in high school. We lived right a couple streets apart in Old Bar. I remember how hard it was for them all, going through life in that last year with Jeff. It was really sad. Your piece mentions Jeff as a teacher and although I never had the honor of being in his class, I know exactly what you meant when you wrote about his imposing presence and strong voice. He was a tough bugger on the footy field too. I remember him charging onto the ball head first into tacklers and rucks like a wild man. On one occasion, I was laying face down on the ground after being pummeled and as he ran by, he reached out, grabbed my jersey and jerked me to my feet, yelling “don’t just lay there, go get that so and so.” All of the Clams old boys like Crooksey, Woodduck, Mango and Jerry Ryan would have some awesome stories about Jeff. I hope they see this and share.
    Like you and those Clammies I mentioned, we are the lucky ones. We got to meet and know Jeff Vandenbergh. I wish he was still with us.

  5.' Tanya O'Brien says:

    Marcus, absolutely beautiful story on ur life & ur gratitude to Mr Vandenbergh for his kind nature & wonderful teaching ability. I too also had the pleasure of being his student at Taree Public School. He was remarkable & someone that truly did leave a mark on all his students in the best of ways. I also live in Old Bar & see his platform & park regularly. God bless him for his loving nature to teach. We were all so very lucky to hav been guided & touched in the heart by him.

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