I did something recently that I should have done years ago: I called Mrs. Morello.
Anna Morello, teacher par excellence for over 35 years at Hunter College High School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, is one of the most gifted and skillful educators I have ever encountered. In 1990, when the city was offering teachers attractive packages for early retirement, I was Mrs. Morello’s last student teacher. Almost everything I know about how to educate comes from Mrs. Morello.
Late in my junior year at Barnard College, where I was minoring in education and seeking a high school social studies teaching certificate, I was sitting in a poli-sci colloquim one day planning my student teaching. As we waited for the professor to arrive, I mentioned as an aside to the classmate sitting next to me, whose name I can’t remember, that Barnard assigned me to the Hunter College High School, but that the school’s policy allows me to choose my own mentor teachers.
“Mrs Morello,” he said. “You must choose Mrs. Morello.” Turns out, my classmate had graduated from Hunter three years earlier. “She is the best teacher I have ever had,” he added with a rather subdued, contemplative enthusiasm. Well, that was enough for me. My goal, as a young, idealistic, aspiring educator, was to become exactly that – someone’s best teacher ever. Mrs. Morello was going to become my mentor.
Over the first semester of my senior year – too short, for my tastes – I spent every day with Mrs. Morello, watching her, listening to her philosophize in the staff room, and eventually taking over one of her prized possessions: eleventh grade International Relations. This was her baby, the class she developed out of years of thinking through her most valued educational ideas. Despite her decades of teaching experience, she planned every lesson from scratch. She did not come in with a preplanned curriculum based on repeating everything she has done before, but worked out how to approach topics and issues in relation to the previous lesson and the ongoing, developing relationship with her students. She taught me how to ask questions, how to create space for students’ reflections, how to get students to respect one another, and how to truly facilitate a discussion to the extent that the teacher becomes invisible. Her techniques around brainstorming, effective use of the board, and formulation of questions remain my blueprint for lesson planning to this day. Mrs. Morello really turned me into a teacher.
Mrs Morello has gone through a lot since we last spoke in 1991. Her family lost two members on 9/11, Edward DeSimone and Vincent D'Amadeo, as well as friends and neighbors in Bayside, Queens. And she lost her daughter-in-law to breast cancer after a long battle, following which she and her husband moved in with their son for three years in order to help look after the young grandchildren. “It was a no-brainer,” she said about that decision. “Life throws things your way and you just have to deal with them.” A no-brainer for some, I thought, for the truly special, caring people in this universe.
At 70, Mrs. Morello is active and bustling, despite suffering from glaucoma and arthritis. She belongs to a book club which she says, really brings out the teacher in her. “I don’t mean to toot my own horn,” she said shyly – please, toot, toot, I responded, thirsting to hear her mind working – “but at our meetings, I often bring out original ideas from the books that I read.” I have no doubt about that. She is a woman of brilliant intellect whose amazing skill is not so much in her own insights, but in the deft with which she elicits profound ideas from the people around her. “I feel like I could walk into any classroom right now,” she said, “and teach.” Indeed, the sign of a true teacher is that no matter what age, what subject, or what context, she can go and bring people to greater heights of awareness and understanding about what they’re doing. Mrs. Morello is a bona fide master.
Clearly, many people have been influenced by Mrs. Morello. She counts as her graduates university presidents and governmental advisers, writers, and activists. But the most celebrated graduate I discovered by accident. In an episode from a previous season of the popular television drama West Wing, President Bartlett invites a distinguished teacher to the White House to bestow a special award of “Outstanding Teacher”. On the show, the teacher’s name is Mrs. Morello. Watching this, my immediate thought was: someone at West Wing must be a Hunter graduate! And sure enough, Mrs. Morello confirmed for me that the writer of that episode was in fact one of her former students. The way I see it, if you’re not going to receive an actual presidential award for being an outstanding teacher, getting a fictional one on West Wing is almost as good. (Truth be told, it’s probably even better – more people notice it, and it’s more dramatic.) And anyway, if anyone deserves such an award, she does.
It was great to catch up with Mrs. Morello, though I had an agenda when I called. I found myself awake at 2AM, fretting over some difficult educational encounters I’ve had recently, since returning to my life in Israel following three years living and working in Australia. Having spent the past fifteen years teaching in various formats – formal and informal, adult and adolescent, in New York, Melbourne, and Jerusalem – I recently completed my doctorate in sociology of education at Hebrew University and “graduated” to the work I thought I wanted to do all along: training students of education. I was excited at this prospect, and arrogantly thought that after all the different educational experiences I have had, I would slide right into this work. But that didn’t happen. The cultural transition back here was more acute than I expected, and I found myself flustering. And in the middle of the night here – evening in New York – during those dark hours of intense clarity, it just hit me. I needed Mrs. Morello.
And so, despite 15 years and 10,000 miles of distance, and after calling several other Anna Morello’s listed in the godsend Yahoo people search, this amazing mentor not only remembered me but steered me back onto track. I told her a story about a sample lesson that I conducted for a prospective institution around the subject of gender in front of a group of Americans on a student exchange program. In an exercise that I’ve done many times in which participants brainstorm about their previously held notions of the words “man” and “woman” – an exercise that generally leads to provocative debates about our societal conceptions of gender – an 18-year old girl promptly interrupted and announced, “Oh, you’re one of those feminists, aren’t you?” Indeed, I thought, torn between my desire to break into a diatribe about the merits of gender equity and my desire to crawl into a hole. I did neither, but froze up. It was as if my experience and my training just slipped away, flying right out of my body. I simply did not know what to do. At some point I rather ineffectively tried to pull the lesson back to my neat and orderly plan for breaking down stereotypes that turned out to be much more deeply held and profoundly troubling than I had anticipated. But to no avail, the student had won – my class was dead in the water. I left despondent and a bit lost, and obviously did not get the job.
“You have to always be flexible,” Mrs. Morello reminded me. “You have to be ready to abandon your lesson plan when confronted by comments that need addressing.” I knew that in my head, but unfortunately the knowledge had not been available to my body when I needed it. The truth is, all I wanted to know was, What would Mrs Morello have done? “I would have erased the board entirely,” she said, “put the word ‘feminism’ up there on one side and have them brainstorm about that, then put ‘anti-feminism’ on the other column, and let them brainstorm about that, to let them really hash out what these words mean to them.” I sighed, trying, as I did when I was 21, not to feel like a complete failure. In this conversation, reminiscent of so many others we had in the staff room at Hunter College High school, Mrs. Morello suddenly reminded me of all the things I want to do as a teacher, some of which I have let slide away. The space belongs to the students, she taught me, it always must be about them and not me. And use the blackboard to help the students see themselves. Significantly, she did not let me sink into the despondency that comes with failure. “I’ve seen many teachers lose their confidence,” she affirmed. “Don’t’ let that happen to you.” If I always have you with me, I thought, maybe I won’t.
Mrs. Morello, a model mentor teacher, has a fixed place in my professional identity. Mrs. Morello is a reminder that with all the debates raging about mentor teachers, ultimately the mentor is this: a personal example of human grace, dignity, intelligence and care. A mentor transmits her entire persona into the aspiring teacher’s consciousness, so much so that years later, it is this model that serves as my guidepost, my beacon. I am always learning how to be a better teacher, and she is always there with me, despite yawns of time and distance. Mrs. Morello will always be the teacher I aspire to be. Her wisdom, insight, and educational brilliance sit on my shoulder, like Freud’s superego, urging me to strive for excellence in my practice. I am so grateful to have spoken to her, and having experienced her wisdom first hand, once again. And if I can achieve a fraction of her skill as a teacher, I will consider myself to be doing well.
Elana Maryles Sztokman currently teaches education and gender at the Efrata Teacher Training College and at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Israel, and is Managing Editor of Jewish Educational Leadership.