What with schools being closed in New York State until at least April 15, with many likely to be closed for longer, I’ve been thinking about teachers, about the teachers I’ve had and the teachers I wished I’d had.
Many years ago, I remember sitting in a video editing room cutting a piece I’d shot for the NewsHour about a fifth-grade teacher, Marguerite Izzo. She’d won NY State’s Teacher of the Year award the previous year and I’d wondered what made someone worthy of an award with such a lofty title.
So, we went to her class in Malverne, NY to shoot what this particular Teacher of the Year did. She taught. Her students learned. She led. They followed. There they all were on their backs on the floor underneath their desks. They had paint brushes and they were painting sheets of paper taped to the bottom their desks. They were getting an idea, Marguerite said, what it was like for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, lying on his back, as he did for years, painting the hands of God and Man.”
“You know,” she said,” I can remember being on the steps in my elementary school, thinking about the incredible power that a teacher has…And I wanted to be that powerful person. I wanted to make children’s lives better. I wanted to make children think beyond what they had, thought they were capable of.”
Watching her crawling on her hands and knees among her kids, her infectious smile, her joyous laugh, her kids laughing along with her, talking to her, her kids — every one of them — fully engaged in what they were doing.
Looking at this scene play out on the monitors in front of me, I turned to my editor and said, “I wish I’d had a teacher like that. I wish all my teachers were like that.
But my teachers weren’t like that and, sad to say, nowhere near enough anywhere are. Looking back at my school years, from kindergarten through graduate school, I’m lucky if I can find as many as I have fingers on one hand who I felt inspiring, who made me want to go to class in the morning or show up in their class during the rest of the day, to do the work that was required of me, much less to do more than I was asked.
It feels slightly weird to be writing about teachers, about their importance, at this moment in our country’s history with much of our nation grinding or already ground to a halt. All over the country, schools have been shuttered. Kids from pre-K to college have been told to stay home, maybe for the rest of the semester. For my family, that’s true for one grandson who is in pre-K, two granddaughters in middle school, and one granddaughter, a sophomore in college.
And yet, school has not exactly come to an end for the year. Boards of Education, school districts, individual schools and teachers have been preparing to engage in something many of them have never done before: remote learning. Even my pre-K grandson has remote learning sessions scheduled.
Yes, people have been talking about remote learning for many years now and it certainly goes on, although I have no idea how widespread it has been or how effective.
One thing is fairly obvious. Curriculum matters. It always does. Another thing is obvious: Teachers matter. Or at least that is obvious to me. It’s so easy for me to imagine a child stretched out on his back in Marguerite Izzo’s class, discovering the magic of painting, and deciding there and then to make a life for him or herself as an artist. A teacher can make, change (or, sometimes, break) a future for a child.
Something else is obvious: if you are going to have remote learning, the tools have to be available to every student. We know that’s not the case. Here in Columbia County and throughout the state, there are areas where access to broadband services are simply not available. Even worse, there are children who don’t have the resources—money—to buy the computers, Chromebooks, iPads or whatever else might be necessary for remote learning.
Thinking back on my own life, I can think of only a few people, few teachers, outside of my parents and the general ethos of my family, who made a real difference in my life. There were none in elementary school.
The curriculum in 9th grade led by Bob Leicester, both in reading, history and political science formed the backbone of much of my personal and professional interests for the rest of my life.
Ed Stillman, my English teacher in 10th, 11th and 12th grades English teacher taught me to love poetry as I mentioned in a previous piece.
Harold Kirshner, my History teacher in those same grades, encouraged me to disagree with him, in particular about the Soviet Union, which led to a continual interest in the Bolshevik Revolution and the failures and betrayals of the Soviet Union along with 20th century American history both of which formed one of the backbones of my course work in college. When I became interested in knowing far more about the background of the Holocaust and World War 2, he encouraged me to pursue it far beyond whatever course requirements there were, an interest that has lasted a lifetime.
During a lecture in a Philosophy and Literature class, Professor Thelma Levine, mentioned in passing that Edith Hamilton had said something about the Egyptians worshipping death and when I wondered how a civilization could survive and thrive for thousands of years with such an attitude, she encouraged a semester long dive into the literature and history of Ancient Egypt and a meditation on the meaning of life to them (and me) despite those having little to do with the course except in its largest context. Professor Levine was delighted to have captured my interest in something.
Finally, there was Herman Shonbrun, a theater director and one-time teacher, through whose encouragement and example, I learned to coalesce my various scattered interests and incoherent life into something around which I gradually created a life and a career.
Five people then. Five living, breathing people. Bob Leicester, all ruddy faced and laughing (except when he frowned) insisting that all of us read 3 different short stories by a different writer every week through the entire year. Harold Kirshner, raising an eyebrow when I raised my hand to disagree with something he said about America or about Russia, “Mr. Saltz, you had something else you wanted to say?” Ed Stillman striding around the classroom handing out mimeographed pages of poems by Yeats or Thomas or Eliot. Thelma Levine with her flaming, red hair talking about Thomas Mann, Freud and Kafka. And Herman Shonbrun, so passionate about the magic of theater, about understanding the relationships between people, all Southern charm and guile. Five people, teachers all, without whom my life might have been very different.
Marguerite Izzo and her ilk still exist today. I read about a teacher who, in these days of school closure, drives to the houses of each of her students so that she can wave at them. Or my grandson’s pre-K teacher who has organized Zoom meetings with all her students so they can all see each other and try to remain connected.
I hope, when this is all over, we will not forget the singular role that teachers, living breathing teachers, can play in our, and our children’s lives. And that we will make even greater efforts to find and make better ones, to support them and reward them for the work they try to do to help us create our lives.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.