The “From the Desk Of” series is my regular email to the Valley Torah High School community.
“Oh Captain! My Captain!” begins the famous poem of the same title by Walt Whitman. However, for me and many others, these words conjure images of the iconic Robin Williams standing on a classroom desk playing the role of Welton Academy’s English teacher, John Keating, in the movie Dead Poets Society. The movie was an Academy Award winning film and serves as a reminder of all the great teachers in our lives. Sadly, we lost Robin Williams this week. He not only breathed life into the most memorable of characters, but through these characters gave us immeasurable insight and wisdom into our own lives and the world we live in.
Robin Williams was a gifted artist that made us laugh, while tackling the most challenging of subject matters. He was a comedic genius with dramatic depth that gave us a safe and human window into divorce, illness, tragedy, death, prejudice, love and war. We flocked to see his movies because we knew we would be better off for viewing them. We knew he would teach us something we may never have been able to learn on our own. We knew he would make us smile and often cry. Mr. Williams, you will forever be known as a great actor, but for me you will always be that inspiring educator at Welton who opened my eyes to what teaching is strives to be and what learning must be.
This week I, along with the admin team, have continued to plan for the upcoming school year. Specifically, in prepping for our upcoming staff training days as well the increase in staff professional development I have been thinking often about what great teaching looks like. Great teachers are lifelong learners and I want to make sure we support that at VTHS. I have also been meeting with families and students and smiled widely when a student eagerly asked if he would be in Rabbi Grama’s class because he is “so awesome” or another who wondered if Mr. Safi was coming back since he “learned so much from him and was looking forward to learning more.” Great teachers are our favorite teachers and there are many “favorites” here at VTHS. In fact, I recently podcasted about one of my favorite VTHS English teachers back in the day, Mr. Jeff Bens. Feel free to listen to it by clicking here.
I have also had to think about what “great” teachers do differently as Mr. Matt Yamashita recently informed us that he will be relocating and unable to return as one of great English teachers. I had some big shoes to fill and many interviews to conduct. As I did my interviews, I once again had Robin Williams on my mind.
A great teacher sees the potential in their students, even when their students do not see it themselves. In Dead Poets Society we are introduced to a young Ethan Hawke who has not done his homework assignment of writing a poem. Instead of berating the student or giving him an “F”, Mr. Keating says to the class and the student, “Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing…..well I think you are wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.” He then proceeds to encourage and support Mr. Anderson in creating a poem at the moment and what he creates is beautiful. He showed Mr. Anderson what he truly was capable of and told him “never forget this moment” ensuring he would always know he is “worth a great deal.” With this in my mind all week, I am happy to say that I hired a new English teacher who I am confident would have done the same as Mr. Keating and will fit in nicely among our team of “great” teachers.
I am pleased to announce the appointment of Mr. David Paradzik to our English department. Mr. Paradzik comes to us from the Sierra Canyon School, was an English major at the University of Michigan, is an author, exhibits a wonderful love of teaching and has a deep understanding of 21st Century Education and the skills needed to prepare our students for their world. I hope you will all join me in warmly welcoming Mr. Paradzik to our VTHS family.
We have all had those few teachers who impacted our lives in ways we honestly will never be able to repay them. They will also likely never be aware of the impact they have had on us. I regret not letting my teachers know the important role they played in my development because at the time I thought they were just doing their job. However, I did not realize what the job really entailed and how it was much more than “just” a job. It is a calling of the highest order and the dedication and devotion it takes required, at the very least, my gratitude.
To my new students at VTHS, I hope you will take the time to thank your teachers for the work they do in bringing out your full potential. You will not regret it. To the rest of us who are long out of school, let us find a way to say thank you to those who lived to teach and made our lives better because of it. To Mr. Williams I say “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done…” and hope that we have learned from you as we have learned from our greatest teachers to sojourn on until the “prize we sought is won.” You will be missed, but not forgotten along with all the great teachers in our lives.