They Teach Because…

By Erica Brown

In December, we launched a contest for teachers to find out why they do what they do in a hundred words or less. And you told us! Some of you reflected on the importance of making a difference in the life of a child, while others focused on personal job satisfaction. Some of you see yourself in the soul-growing business and, specifically, seeding Jewish life for the next generation. Many of you love lightbulb moments and lots of you – teachers and principals – thanked us for helping you take a few moments to pause on your careers and the importance of teaching as a profession of meaning.

Our contest winner is Morgan Atkins, from the Hillel Community Day School in Rochester, NY. She teaches grades 3-4 and in 98 words, told us why she teaches:

I teach to see my students grow intellectually and emotionally. There is nothing like it. I love helping students discover something while they help me discover more about myself. It’s this beautiful transformative journey for both of us that is unique and never the same. I teach because our future is important, and I believe education is that catalyst for positive change. Teaching is rarely easy and requires constant reflection, but that challenge is what makes it so enticing. I get up every morning for that challenge, that change, that growth, and to see that beautiful journey unfold.

Each of you shared with us how this beautiful journey unfolds for you so we wanted to share a little snapshot of each response. In this contest, every teacher is a winner to us.

Its All about the Kids

Shira Manne, a high school English teacher at the Stella K Abrams (SKA) High School for Girls in Long Island, NY, loves teaching high school students “because teenagers/adolescents are at the cusp of leaving childhood and becoming adults. Each day, she sees “so much potential and idealism that has not been jaded by the outside world and just needs the right spark of inspiration and guidance to soar.”Jennifer Cherney at Temple Israel Early Childhood Learning Center in New York City, sees herself as guiding “each child’s curiosities by making them feel their words and ideas are important and valued.”K-6 reading specialist, Courtney Talmoud, knows that “all students need someone to believe in them. They need a safe place to learn, grow and find support…They want to be respected for their effort and hard work. They want to be loved for who they are.” In her work at Adelphi Elementary School, she laughs a lot with her students.

Adina Salamon who teaches a range of subjects at SKA loves the light in her students eyes and the smiles when they finally understand what she’s teaching. Chana Zaks, who teaches at Jewish Sunday Program at the Kings Bay Y, says teaching is live-giving and finds it empowering when children “embody the timeless Jewish values that are already within them…” Ben Richman, at the Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, put this thoughts into rhyme, describing the transformation as a child’s world open up to others.

The innocence of childhood contains
An overflowing spring of selfish drives
That steady schooling, over years, restrains.
And so, with guidance, “me” to “we” arrives.

Ben teaches, he says, “to share a journey as we learn, to move from new toward old and to return.”

Ellen Finegold is moved by her students: “their honesty, naivete, and passion … their tactlessness, their openness, and their ability to take risks.” As a high school science teacher at Claire and Emanuel G. Rosenblatt High School, Ellen is struck by the nobility of teachers, our society’s unsung heroes and heroines: “Teaching means establishing a trusting and respectful relationship with students and their families.” Ben Sameyah, an 8th grade Hebrew teacher at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel believes that leaving “a lasting impression” on students is a privilege that he doesn’t take for granted. His colleague, Betsy Stone says that she teaches because it’s “like tzedakah, it rewards everyone: the giver and the receiver.”

Amber Gardner, a high school English teacher at the Atlanta Jewish Academy, believes that in this era of technology “thinking is on its way to being a lost art” we cannot afford to lose. She appreciates that some aspects “of our society and our students suffer from brokenness” and teaching offers the opportunity to “help students put themselves back together.”

Teaching is Fun!

Reading specialist Sharon Tash reflects that of all the jobs she’s held in her long career, “teaching is the only one that doesn’t feel like work because it is so much fun.” Other teachers also focused on personal job satisfaction. A first grade teacher at Hillel Community Day School in Rochester, Becca Beldner, feels most alive when she’s in front of students, “bringing excitement and learning to life.” She teaches because she cannot imagine a better way to spend her day than with her “loving, wonderful, smart, funny, caring, respectful, creative best friends.”

Riki Fishbein at SKA teaches because she likes to touch the heart. Sheina Goldberg, a high school teacher at LGHS in Chicago loves the moment of student understanding; it helps improve the quality of her life: “The “Aha” moments for the students plus the knowledge and skills I gain in the classroom environment spill over into the rest of my life.” She is still influenced by her own teachers.

Jane Schechtman Grauer, a kindergarten teacher at Westchester Day School in Mamaroneck, NY, summed it up in five words “I teach because I’m selfish.” She also learned a powerful lesson from her mother, “The only things you get to keep in life are those you give away.” A high school Hebrew teacher at SKA, Gavriel Sanders, describes teaching as a calling and the work he does as a grower: “I teach with the mentality of a farmer, planting seeds today which may sprout and flourish next week, next month, or even next decade. I’m energized by the high calling of the profession and grateful that the rigors and rewards have, above it all, made me a better, wiser student.” “I became an early childhood educator,” Writes Liana Sikavi at University Synagogue in Brentwood teaches “because there is always one student who needs that extra hug, the friendly smiles in the morning, the encouragement to keep going and the confidence to never stop dreaming.”

It’s not always easy. Debbie Carbone, a kindergarten teacher at the Hebrew Day School in Ann Arbor, M.I., has learned to negotiate “the organized chaos that goes along with this profession” and has learned to “embrace the ups and downs.” She’s concluded that student “imagination, curiosity, kindness, and joy in the simple pleasures outweigh the struggles.”

Growing Jewish Souls and Jewish Leaders

“Nearly every day, Ronni Ticker (Director of Family and Youth Learning, Congregation B’nai Tzedek) observes, she is “blessed to have the chance to nurture spirituality and connect Jewish children to Torah, prayer, and the Jewish lens on how to be kind and just.” Naomi Bennun who teaches Hebrew in SKA is able to share her own Israeli background in her classroom and the culture embedded in the language: “I teach because I love the Hebrew language. I love its richness and biblical sources. I love the modern slang and new words and the culture that goes along with it…” Sapir Mualem, from Hillel Community Day School in Rochester shares Naomi’s loves: “I love talking about Israel and love speaking in Hebrew.”

Miriam Engel, a 7th grade Judaics teacher at Donna Klein Jewish Academy in Boca Raton, FL considers her work holy and an expression of her religious commitment: “I am fiercely proud to be Jewish, therefore I teach.” She believes her students, “will be the voice of our American Jewish community and our future Jewish leaders; whose love of and strong affinity to Israel will link American Jews to Israel. Lisa P. Bernstein, at the Hebrew Day School of Ann Arbor, teaches Judaic studies to 3-5th graders and wants “to make being Jewish meaningful for the next generations of Jews; so that they will take pride in their heritage and find their own reasons to carry it forward into the future.” She hopes her “students will wrestle with Judaism from a foundational knowledge of text and tradition as they participate in the ongoing evolution of Jewish expression in America.” Rabbi Karen L. Fox, our only adult educator to participate, teaches rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College, L.A., so that she can “influence the next generation of Jewish leaders.” Teaching gives her hope.

Other Reasons to Teach

Yael Spiegel, who teaches juniors and seniors at SKA, offered the most unusual motivation for her career choice: “I teach because I hated my teachers. No, really. I distinctly remember sitting in my awful fifth grade teacher’s class and thinking, ‘I should be a teacher, because I would do it so much better.”’ We’re delighted that she did. Yael wanted to have fun with her students and “NOT learn with them.” Over time, that changed, “but the dream remained.”

Alex Treyger’s father was a teacher who wanted to be a doctor but in the 1950s, in Odessa, he was not allowed into medical school. Alex, the director of digital learning and technology at the Chicago Jewish Day School, teaches so that “Jewish leaders of tomorrow…will advocate, defend and protect the rights of all individuals so they can attend any university, work in any field, serve on any board and teach in any school they want!”

Sarah Geller, at the Krieger Schechter Day School, who is celebrating her 50th year of teaching – mazal tov and thank you – sees teaching as the best way to make a difference in the world. “My parents were Holocaust survivors who lost their families and began new lives.  I grew up with a deep sense of commitment to the Jewish people and humanity in general. Guiding young people to be the best forms of themselves feels like I am helping to renew the world,” especially when some of her own former students have themselves become teachers.

Diane Berg who teaches 4th grade atTemple Beth El of Huntington, New York believesthat the Jewish virtues and values” she teaches her students “will help them navigate their future and enrich their lives.” For Diane, it’s been the best and most meaningful career,” one where she feels she has had real impact. “What more could a person ask for?”

Dr. Erica Brown is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at The George Washington University and director of its Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.