Teacher Appreciation Week

This week, May 7th to 11th, is Teacher Appreciation Week 2012.  In this current era of teacher bashing, I think all teachers don’t really need anything special — they’d be fine with a five day break.

For this post, I’m going to reflect on the teachers in my life that I’ve appreciated.  Some were great teachers, some were just good teachers, and some, believe it or not, were ‘bad’ teachers.

Mel Isaacs, sixth grade 1980-1981

Since my school had some team taught classes, I had ten different teachers at Birch School in Merrick, Long Island.  Of those ten teachers, three had a big impact on me:  second grade, Mrs. Weinrab, fifth grade, Mrs. Gart, and sixth grade, Mr. Isaacs.

Mr. Isaacs was a legend in our school and my sister, who is two years older than me, had him when she was in sixth grade.  Mr. Isaacs had announced, already, that he was retiring, so my sixth grade year would be his last year teaching.  On the last day of fifth grade, we were told who we would be having next year and I was not assigned to his class.  My mother called the school and requested that I get switched into his class.  My mother said that Mr. Isaacs was such an influence on my sister and then threw in that my parents were recently divorced and I could use a consistent male role model, I think.  Whatever she said, it worked, and I was put into the class.

Mr. Isaacs was an amazing teacher.  He truly ran a student-centered class and insisted that we turn in every assignment.  I remember having to make up about twenty things at the end of the year or I would be ‘left back’  — now I know this was probably an idle threat, but it worked.

I will never forget the two major units we did on Ancient Greece and The United Nations.  For the U.N., each of us chose a country and we made flags and then we had simulated meetings of the general assembly, the security council, and the world court.  This was 31 years ago, and I still get a sense of pride when I pass by the actual United Nations, here in New York City, because of how much I had learned about it back then.

I suppose that if there was one thing Mr. Isaacs could have improved about his teaching would have been to refrain from smacking me, and some other boys, on the side of the head when we were day-dreaming.  I’m not saying I didn’t deserve it.  Back in 1981, it probably wasn’t even something a teacher could get fired for.

Milton Klausner, 10th grade English 1984-1985 and 12th grade English 1986-1987

Claire Bendle, 11th grade English 1985-1986

The best two teachers I had in high school were not, for me, my math teachers.  The math teachers were fine — good enough.  Certainly from a value-added perspective, my math teachers would be considered to have done a great job with me.  But I know that it was my English teachers who had the most impact on me — even though I didn’t do very well on the English Regents or the A.P. English test.

I think an English teacher has done a great job if they help students develop a love for reading or writing, preferably both.  I’ll admit that they didn’t get me to love reading literature — something I still don’t like.  Not that they didn’t try, but I just couldn’t get through ‘The Grapes Of Wrath,’ ‘The Scarlett Letter,’ and ‘Ethan Frome’ without the aid of Cilff’s Notes (has The Internet put Cliff’s Notes out of business?).

My great English teachers did not help me love reading, but did help me learn to write, something that is my true passion — even more than Math.  I remember that Mr. Klausner had us write an ‘anecdote’ every day of the entire school year.  I can’t imagine how he graded all of them, now that I am a teacher, but somehow he did.  He used to have us read our first sentences out loud and he’d judge if they were exciting enough.  In almost all my published work, I can see Mr. Klausner’s influence in some of my pithy first sentences.

Mrs. Bendle helped me develop my abilities as a humor writer.  She must have given many assignments that allowed me to explore this type of writing, and was very encouraging of my efforts.  I remember telling the girl who sat behind me in that class, that I was going to write a book one day.

A great teacher is one that makes assignments that encourage students’ abilities and my two high school English teachers did just that.

Wynn Landau, trumpet teacher, 1978-1987

Surely the most influential teacher in my life was not a teacher from my schooling, but someone who was referred to my family when I was in 4th grade by my elementary school band teacher, Mr. Feulner.

As I was showing some early talent for the trumpet when I started playing in 4th grade, I started taking private lessons with Mr. Landau.  I’m not sure how old he was, probably in his early to mid seventies when we started.  Mr. Landau was, literally, a giant.  As a side effect of a radiation treatment when he was a little younger, his bones began to grow again.  As a result, he was physically grotesque.  But his goodness and love of teaching made his students unable to notice this.

Mr. Landau spent about half of each lesson telling me stories about his life.  These tales were as tall as him, but if they were even a little true, he lived a pretty amazing life.  He was in the army, I guess for WWII, and he claims that he was the bugler who played ‘taps’ at FDR’s funeral.  He said that he and three of his platoon mates pushed an anti-Semetic drill seargeant off of a tower.

Fourth grade was when my parents got divorced.  My grandmother died when I was in 5th grade.  My dog died when I was in 6th grade.  Mr. Landau was the most consistent figure in my life throughout all those years.  I remember that in 5th grade my class had an ‘honored guest’ party and while all the other students invited their parents or grandparents, I invited Mr. Landau.

I was (and still am) a very shy person.  But when I played the trumpet, I was anything but.  I practiced a lot and was first trumpet from 4th grade through 12th grade.  I could play louder than the entire band if I wanted to.  As first trumpet, I was also pretty popular, at least among the people in the band.  The trumpet gave me an identity and a ‘thing’ that I excelled at.  The confidence that I have today when I’m in my element — either in the classroom, or writing these blog entries, were nurtured by Mr. Landau and the years of trumpet lessons.

Between my second and third years of teaching, back in the summer of 1994, I was visiting New York from Houston when I got the call that Mr. Landau had died.  By an amazing coincidence, it was possible for me to attend his funeral.  But, ironically — and this is perhaps the biggest regret in my life — I didn’t.  Back then I was so obsessed with teaching that I would not even consider changing my flight to get back to Houston early enough to set up my classroom.  If I could go back and do it again, I would have paid my respects properly — and brought my trumpet and played ‘taps.’

Assorted ‘bad’ teachers 1974-1991

Most of my teachers were not very inspirational.  Some, particularly in college math courses, were pretty bad.  The one thing about a ‘bad’ teacher is that the student is forced to teach himself the material.  I suppose a great teacher can also teach a student how to be self-sufficient, but there’s a bit more urgency when you have a truly bad teacher.  Bad math teachers inspired me to learn to learn from the textbook.  Bad history teachers have inspired me, in recent years, to read books about American history.  I think if all my teachers were ‘great’ I would have never been forced to pick up this important skill.

And someone who I thought was ‘bad’ might have been considered great by someone else.  This is part of the benefit of having so many different teachers in our lifetime.  Really you only need one great teacher in your lifetime.

As I feared, this post became a lot more about me than about the teachers who inspired me.  I haven’t thought about all these teachers in a long time, and now my whole school experience is coming back to me so I’m just going to ramble for a while — feel free to stop reading if you get bored.  There were other great teachers besides the four that I mentioned.  My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Gart, was influential in my life because she had us do creative oral reports about books we read.  This was what got me ‘writing’ for an audience.  My second grade teacher, Mrs. Weinrab, actually had me over to her house to meet her family for dinner once.  This definitely made me feel special.  Three of my middle school teachers stand out, Mr. Auletta the science teacher — with his corny puns.  Mrs. Osrow, my English teacher for 7th and 8th grade, who also had us do creative oral reports.  Mrs. Schreiber who was my computer teacher in 8th grade and who trusted me and my buddy Jared to demonstrate what we learned at parent teacher conference night.  All the different band teachers I had were quite good — makes me hope that the Arts makes a comeback in schools.  My best science teacher was Mr. Young.  I had him for 11th grade chemistry and 12th grade physics.  I idolized this guy and did very well in his courses.  He let me down, though, when I asked him to write my college recommendation letter.  He cryptically said when I asked, “If I write it, I’m going to write the truth.”  Knowing that I definitely had my flaws, I found someone else to write it.  Now, as a teacher, I rarely turn anyone down.

To all teachers, particularly TFA teachers who are just completing their first years and who, despite my relentless criticism, I’m sure gave it everything they had, I hope that some of your students learn that this is teacher appreciation week and write you a card or something.  Even my first year, I got some thank you notes at the end of the year which I still treasure.

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1 Response to Teacher Appreciation Week

  1. lofaso says:

    Hi Gary. Got sucked into a web wormhole that started with Birch School and then got me to your post as I was remembering Mr. Isaacs. I had him I believe it was in 1971. That man changed my life and helped make me the man I am today. He taught me decency, respect, and kindness. He took us to see Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. Then our class did parts of the play. Although I was one of only a few Catholic kids in the class he cast me as the Rabbi. Brilliant! That summer he cast me in Annie Get Your Gun. I have a lasting regret that after learning the part and all the songs I got stage fright and dropped out. Heck I was like 12. Anyway, I was happy to be reminded of him. Thank you!

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