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The Power of a School Teacher

Teachers can influence us in myriad ways.
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August 25, 2022

When it comes to the vexing subject of education in the Jewish world, by far the most dominant issue is affordability, and for good reason. Indeed, the fact that so many people can’t afford the high cost of a Jewish day school education is so true, so talked about and so important, that other aspects of education can easily get lost in the noise.

Such as, for instance, the value of a school teacher.

Many of us have fond memories of a teacher who made a lasting impact on us, whether in grade school, high school or even kindergarten. It could be a memorable line we can’t forget, or a teacher’s attitude or personality that resonated with our young minds. It could be a teacher who soothed our insecurities and gave us confidence. Teachers can influence us in myriad ways.

So, for our Education Issue this week, we decided to ask people across the community to share memories of teachers who moved them. We hope you’ll be moved as well by the stories, and that it’ll spark some of your own memories that you can share with those around you.

Just to give you a little taste:

Sharon Nazarian remembers Mr. Kinny, her cherubic, white-bearded seventh grade English teacher she had in 1979, soon after her family escaped the Iranian revolution. Despite her broken English, Mr. Kinny gave Sharon the confidence to participate in a school contest she’ll never forget.

Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse will never forget Mr. Solomon, who introduced her to her lifelong best friend when she moved from New York at age nine in the middle of the school year.

Rabbi Tarlan Rabizadeh can’t forget Gilla Nissan, a substitute teacher in first grade of Jewish Studies, who, out of the blue, turned off the lights one day to make a point about Shabbat. That one experience planted the seed in the rabbi for understanding holiness, and what it means to sanctify time. 

There are many more such stories and memories, compiled by our award-winning weekly columnist Tabby Refael. The point of all the stories is to remind us of the unique and lasting power of those who teach.

The last two years, of course, have been radically disruptive for all school systems with the unprecedented lockdowns and restrictions due to the pandemic. Administrators, teachers, students and parents have had to constantly adapt and adjust. Some restrictions went too far; others were too confusing. Even the best teachers found it hard to overcome the constant disruption. The education and mental health of too many students suffered as a result.

With the pandemic in the rearview mirror (we hope), teachers will have a renewed chance to shine. If anything, the radical disruption of the past two years has accentuated the radical value and importance of the school teacher.

Now, with the pandemic in the rearview mirror (we hope), teachers will have a renewed chance to shine. If anything, the radical disruption of the past two years has accentuated the radical value and importance of the school teacher.

This cover story of memories, then, is as much for teachers and educators as it is for anyone else. It’s a reminder of the value of educators in the lives of students. 

Initiatives like the Milken Educator Awards, from The Milken Family Foundation, understand this value. They’ve been honoring top educators around the country for 35 years. Locally, they team up every year with Builders of Jewish Education to honor local teachers from across denominations. By honoring teachers, they indirectly honor the ultimate beneficiary of great teaching — the student. 

This cover story of memories, then, is as much for teachers and educators as it is for anyone else. It’s a reminder of the value of educators in the lives of students.

“Touching the life of a child is the single snowflake that can start the avalanche,” educator Melissa Boyd writes. “There is no limit, no bound to the distance or time [a teacher’s] influence can travel. When my days as a teacher are through, I know that the good I have done will live on in my students and everyone they touch along their own journeys. To me, that’s power.” 

It’s true that affordability remains the issue in Jewish education. I should know, because my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a Jewish day school in Montreal. So, there I was in grade six at a public school that was part of the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal. My teacher was a non-Jew who smoked, wore lots of make-up and ate bacon lettuce tomato sandwiches for lunch.

Her name was Ms. Cleland. She made me fall in love with English and with writing. She was the most beloved teacher I ever had, the one I will never forget.

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