The first class of OZY Education Award winners has been announced over at OZY.com; six of the recipients were kind enough to share with us their memories of the teacher who inspired them to teach:
The teacher who inspired me to become a teacher was my fifth-grade P.E. teacher, Ms. Geri Tanoue, at Alvah A. Scott Elementary School, located in Oahu, Hawaii. She was the first woman teacher who definitely made an impression on me, for she was Japanese, young, athletic, wore shorts and a T-shirt to work every day. She wore a shiny silver whistle hanging around her neck that impressed me. Her shoulder-length dark brown hair, little makeup, and abundant self-confidence made her the epitome of the “modern woman” emerging from society and moving into the heart of the workforce. Tanoue impressed me because she knew everything about sports, something girls were not encouraged to know in-depth or to pursue as a career, and even the boys respected her and listened to her directions. Unlike the other typical females of 1965, Tanoue was bold, but sensitive; assertive, but kind; not your typical Japanese woman. She never lost her cool composure or raised her voice, for the whistle did her talking. She had infinite patience to deal with whatever happened on the sports field; there was nothing she could not do. She made me believe I could be anything, I could do anything, and I could compete equally and perhaps even excel against anyone, even the boys.
I was totally in awe of this teacher. She made me want to be just like her, and P.E. suddenly became my favorite class. I wanted to be able to handle anything, to have fun in my future job, and to be respected. She was my role model for the new modern teacher I wanted to be: confident in my Asian identity and fearless. In 2004, I unexpectedly reunited with Tanoue in Hawaii, after receiving recognition in Nevada and was awarded the Milken Educator Award; she told me how proud she was of me, and I told her how she inspired me. It was momentous. It was well worth the 39-year wait for our reunion, for I was able to finally thank her, teacher to teacher.
I met Dolly Jamael before my interview for a first-grade teaching position in December of 2004. She found me wandering the halls of Dawson Elementary and introduced herself, then offered to show me the first-grade classrooms. “This will be your classroom,” she said as we entered room 103. I hadn’t even interviewed yet, but she was already treating me as warmly as an old friend. Later that day, I was offered the job. The following week was winter vacation, and I was at Dawson nearly every day preparing my classroom. Dolly frequently stopped by, sharing resources and lessons that might be helpful in my first few weeks of teaching and helping me rearrange furniture. For two years, Dolly and I worked alongside each other on the first-grade team. As a novice teacher, I mimicked her attention-getting phrases, modeled my read-aloud lessons after hers, and took note of the ways she organized field trips and composed letters to parents. At the end of my first year of teaching, in spite of beginning in January, I was somehow able to help the vast majority of my bilingual students become emerging readers. Much of my success was due to Dolly’s unrelenting advice, shared resources, and constant encouragement. Years later, I was no longer a novice but an experienced fifth-grade teacher, and often stopped by Dolly’s classroom at the end of the day to debrief and catch up.
In addition to being an incredibly supportive mentor, Dolly was also a masterful teacher. She interacted with children with magical ease, convincing frustrated readers to try one more time and de-escalating emotional students before their behavior reached a boiling point. She was the kind of teacher whom former students visited religiously and that families requested year after year. In short, Dolly was an amazing role model and continues to be an exemplary educator. Out of all of the incredible teachers I have had the honor of knowing, she truly stands out from the rest!
It is such an honor to share my story with others. It is even more of an honor to share the influence of educator Linda Hall in my life! Hands down she has been the most influential educator in my academic career. She was my high school choral instructor. I have always been into music and singing since I was a child. I learned to play the piano when I was in fifth grade. When I started attending Baltimore City College High School in 1999 I ran from the choir. But one day my friends dragged me into the choir room, and the rest was history! She didn’t teach me how to sing … she taught me how to express my emotions through music. Whether it was a madrigal from the Renaissance era, a spiritual from the slave culture, or a jazzy improvisation from the ’60s, Linda Hall taught me to let my voice ring. The life lessons she would give us in between songs still ring in my memory today. Because of her and her example I have literally traveled the world, won musical awards, produced two CDs, and have always strived for my best! She has been a second mother, and I honor her work and legacy as THEE MAESTRA of the Baltimore City College High School “Qwah!”
My namesake, Dr. Samuel Potolicchio, M.D. — as I like to tell my students, the “real doctor” in the family — had the largest impact on my teaching career. He mesmerized me with his ability to help people understand complicated situations and exposed me to the world of ideas.
A practicing neurologist and longtime teaching faculty at Georgetown and George Washington, my father would take me to the Georgetown University hospital, where I would watch him interact with and educate his patients. I never had his scientific aptitude and gravitated towards the humanities, but his impressiveness in explaining complicated, multi-sided problems to people is something I try to emulate when discussing geopolitics with tense international classrooms. When we would leave the hospital, he would invariably have Teaching Company lectures on cassette in the car on philosophy, theology, or history and would return to his favorite chair at home with a side table stacked with biographies. His medical explanations to his students and patients were always studded with apt historical references or pop cultural asides. I have tried to mirror his Renaissance pursuit of knowledge, questing outside my own field to supplement my teaching.
I don’t remember the first time that I met the writer Toni Cade Bambara, but I will never forget the first time she gave me a lesson. It happened sometime between 1989 and 1990. I was a 23-year old know-it-all from San Juan, Puerto Rico, fresh out of making my first film, AIDS in the Barrio (1989). Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Film/Video Project was presenting a comprehensive 12-month retrospective on Latin-American cinema. I was one of a handful of people who attended every screening. Another one was Toni.
One night, after watching Quilombo (1984) — a film by director Carlos Diegues about a maroon community in 17th-century Brazil — I made a comment that I curiously now cannot remember but must have involved the phrase “black slaves.” Toni, who sat across from me in the outdoor section of the now defunct Eden cafeteria where we used to gather, responded by whispering something that I apparently did not hear as I carried on with my argument. Then, with the grace and wit that characterized her, Toni leaned over to me and softly repeated what she had said so this time I would not miss it: “Enslaved Africans.”
The moment that I registered her words was nothing short of revolutionary. For the difference between “black slaves” and “enslaved Africans” was so fundamental that it was evident that these were not just two ways of naming the same object, but completely different ways of inhabiting the world and acting in it. If Toni once defined her objective in writing as finding out “not only how a word gains its meaning, but how a word gains its power,” this was an example of that search happening past the page, in the thick of interethnic exchange. And it also demonstrated a second important aspect of Toni’s teaching philosophy that also became part of my own: Anytime and any place could — and perhaps should — be the site of learning.
I didn’t like going to Sunday school and spent most of my time there socializing with friends and getting into trouble. To make it worse, I found most of the courses boring — history of the Jews in this century or that one being kicked out of one country and getting re-established in another. My teacher for these classes was Dr. Carol Ingall, a warm and patient woman who was passionate about Jewish history — but had a hard time getting our attention. My mother took our family to Israel to celebrate her 50th birthday when I was 27 years old. We visited all of the usual sites, including Beit Hatfutsot, a museum that doesn’t usually make it on to most people’s top-10 list. I remember an exhibit — a large mural — that charted the history of the Jewish people from the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem through current day. It showed the exile of the Jews from one country, the offer of refuge from another that sought to benefit from Jewish culture, the rise of Jews into positions of influence, then their exile when this influence felt threatening. I was stunned.
Suddenly, I realized that I’d been listening all along — and I appreciated Dr. Ingall’s patience and perseverance, and her willingness to invest in us even if we didn’t seem to be engaged or appreciative of the effort. I wrote her a letter to express my appreciation for her investment in me — and trusting that her lessons would eventually be meaningful. I met with Carol when I returned home, and we reflected on the history — and the lessons that could be learned in so many different contexts, particularly changing policies and xenophobia toward immigrants and refugees. Thank you, Carol, for instilling in me a love of learning and an appreciation for the repeating patterns and potential lessons of history to our current lives.
Read more about the OZY Education Award winners