Wednesday, May 9, 2012

My Favorite Year Teacher

Sorry for the weak title and movie reference.

It's teacher appreciation week -- one of our lesser celebrated weeks. I'm waiting for the annual letter we get from the chancellor. Given the level of teacher bashing over the last few years, I've recently found their emails amusing.

I though I'd take the time to thank a few of my most influential teachers. To paraphrase: whatever good I've been able to do, it has been because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.

Alan Goff - 7th grade English - Wagner JHS

Great teacher, great storyteller.  Every now and then class would be spent with Mr. Goff  telling us a story of his childhood. From his school days when he discovered how to make explosive "goffolini" bombs and had to deal with  the bully "GodDilla" to when he blew his hand off with said bombs to his time in the merchant marines. I think I learned more about bringing characters to life from listening to Mr. Goff than anywhere else. I'd like to think I'm somewhat entertaining in class and it started with Mr. Goff. Mr. Goff also shared with us the range of his interests. For me this led to a life of trying to learn something about everything. Thanks.

Mr. Goff passed away a number of years ago and I never had a chance to thank him. I still regret that. A few years ago, when Batya was graduating from Wagner. I drew the short straw and had to go to the awards ceremony. I love going to Batya and Natan's concerts and other things they do, but I hate these award ceremonies. When the vast majority of the students get awards, there really isn't anything special about them - I wasn't thrilled to go. It turned out that Batya won the Alan Goff Memorial Medal for writing. I didn't even know there was one. Brought a tear to my eye.

Herb Greenhut - 7th grade History - Wagner JHS

Wow, what can I say about Herb. He was the first teacher to challenge me to really think. Every year he would start the semester by impersonating a famous figure. Someone his students would never have heard of but their parents would have. For us I think it was William Jennings Bryan. Another year it was Thoreau. All his paperwork was under the pseudonym and he'd play us on for days. He'd engage us in debates as if we were adults.

Herb was a straight shooter. We were young but he never sugar coated things. Herb got us to question things like no teacher had before.

I could go on and on about Herb. He influenced generations. By the time I was in his class in the seventies, he was a veteran and he continued on until right before his death a couple of years ago.

Both my son and daughter had the privilege of being in Herb's class during his final years. He had retired from the school system but still taught at our synagogue. I asked them both about Herb. Their response "he makes us think." Thanks

As I said, I could go on and on about Herb but I found this piece here that does a better job than I'd be able to.

Richie Rothenberg - 12th grade AP CS - Stuy

The only way you could describe Richie would be a mensch in the truest sense of the word.

Richie was my teacher at Stuyvesant. He was a great teacher, but I got more from him as a colleague years later. Richie was always on the side of right and always did the right thing. Never a self promoter and never the "hip" teacher,  he just went about his business of being a great teacher. If there was something he could do to help a student, he did it. Many times, the student never knew.

Richie passed away at 50 in 1997.  The day it happened, school basically shut down. Normally a small memorial plaque is placed up near a room in memory of a teacher. This wouldn't do for Richie. Students, teachers, and alums contributed money and Madeleine Segall-Marx, artist and Stuy parent, contributed a year of her life creating Celebration:


It can be found at Stuy on the fourth floor. Fifty boxes (7x7 + 1 double box). Each representing some aspect of Richie's life.  I still spend time gazing at it.

These three have left us. I never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Goff how influential he was and that's something I regret. Herb became a friend, Richie, a friend and colleague and I'm grateful that I was able to express my gratitude numerous times.

Robert Dewar -- Systems I and II - Courant

Robert is the one college professor on my list and I will reach out to him very shortly just to share with him the impact he's had on me. I was in Robert's class during my sophomore year. If I remember correctly, we finished the syllabus in the first couple of weeks and the rest of the class became "what neat stuff will Professor Dewar teach us today." There was nothing pedagogically "right" about our class. Just 12 or so people around a table talking but it worked. I think I learned more about CS in those classes than most of my others combined. I think a lot came from the transmitted passion for learning neat things about a range of topics.

It's hard to capture what made each of these teachers special. That's the problem with the whole teacher evaluation movement. Richie was the closest to being a traditional teacher but they all had different styles and different personalities. They all helped shape me into the teacher and person I am today, so again to each of them, I say thanks.