Honoring the Unsung Heroes Who Teach Our Children

Why does our society fail to honor a profession that lies at the very foundation of our nation?
September 21, 2023
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I wish I had a chance to thank Ms. Cleland. Over half a century ago, she was the 6th grade teacher who changed my life. I was this Jewish Moroccan immigrant kid in Montreal desperate to learn English. I remember going to her on Monday mornings with words I couldn’t understand from the rabbi’s eloquent Shabbat sermons. She wouldn’t just take the time to explain them; she loved the idea that I would bring her those words. I recall the many afternoons when she’d spend extra time with me to help me master the language that I came to love.

I could just imagine the joy she would have had seeing some of my columns in the Jewish Journal (especially this one).

Ms. Cleland was on my mind Thursday morning when I attended the Jewish Educator Awards (JEA), an initiative of the Milken Family Foundation established in 1990 in cooperation with BJE: Builders of Jewish Education. This was the last of four events this week to honor four Los Angeles-area educators with a $15,000 cash award. I was sitting among teachers, parents and students in the sanctuary of Stephen Wise Temple.

There was a pleasant vibe to the gathering, led by JEA founder Lowell Milken engaging with a large group of Wise School K—6 students in the circular sanctuary. He highlighted three words—leadership, excellence and community— inviting different students to give their best definitions of each. He then asked them to guess who spends so much time with them every day to teach them those values. It was not a tough answer: teachers.

The rest of the event was devoted to honoring a teacher.

That is perhaps what moved me the most about the gathering: the very idea of the gathering itself. Here was a meticulously planned event– complete with a Torah message from Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback– devoted solely to honoring one teacher: Sarah Shpall.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback, Tami Weiser, honoree Sarah Shpall, Lowell Milken.

As Milken mentioned in his opening remarks, we’re so accustomed to honoring athletes, musicians, actors and other celebrities, we rarely take the time to honor the teachers who taught those celebrities when they were just starting their lives.

It feels obvious when you hear it, but it begs the question: Why does our society fail to honor a profession that lies at the very foundation of our nation?

As I saw the excitement in the sanctuary and the standing ovation Shpall received when her name was announced, I had this odd vision: A glamorous, Oscar-type event with red carpet, media interviews, national TV coverage, a famous MC, a live orchestra and an announcer bellowing: “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, welcome to the first annual American Educators Awards.”

Of course, I’m dreaming.

Teachers don’t offer the instant value of celebrity. We don’t go see their movies; we don’t hear their music; we don’t see them play for our favorite sports teams.

The irony is that it is precisely because they’re so invisible that they’re so valuable. They do the hard, tireless work of teaching our kids, day in and day out, trying to adapt to the uniqueness of each kid. The best ones are extraordinary. Outside of their little communal circles, however, hardly anyone hears about them.

The national Milken Educator Awards (MEA), founded by Lowell Milken in 1987, is trying to change that.

They have already honored nearly 3,000 teachers, principals and specialists from across the country, becoming the nation’s preeminent teacher recognition program. There’s also follow up: Honorees join a network that becomes a valuable resource to all those shaping the future of education. But that future, it must be said, will be only as good as the quality of teachers the nation produces.

Which is why honoring the very best of them is such a smart idea. It raises the bar. It encourages others to up their game. It elevates excellence. The benefit flows down to the kids, to our country’s future.

If an Oscar-type event to honor our best teachers is not realistic, maybe we can find a group of celebrities to create a televised, high-profile gala honoring the teachers who moved them the most when they were kids.

Just as Ms. Cleland moved me when I was a kid desperate to learn English.


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