Education Guide: A Vintage View

Teacher appreciation comes too late

by Len Lear
Posted 4/18/24

My older brother Bennett taught English for many years. Every time he tells us about grateful former students, I wish I had contacted my own best teachers.

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Education Guide: A Vintage View

Teacher appreciation comes too late


My older brother Bennett taught English for many years at Abington High School, Penn State Ogontz and Council Rock High School in lower Bucks County. I sat in his class a few times because he wanted me to talk to the students about journalism, so I saw first-hand that he was an outstanding teacher. 

Of course, I am biased, but over the years he has received countless letters from former students expressing gratitude for what he did for them.

I cannot count all the times former students have contacted Bennett to take him out to lunch, although he retired 30 years ago. Many who now live in other parts of the country contact Bennett when they come back to the Philadelphia area, usually for holidays when they visit their families.

Donna Rhodes, a former student from his 1976 AP English class at Council Rock High School, who is now a museum curator, put it this way:

“Have I told you lately that your influence in my life has changed it for the better?” she wrote in a recent letter. “Not just the literature we read but class discussions and essay assignments that changed my views on life and your enduring, sincere friendship. You are forever in my best memories and in my heart.”

Every time Bennett tells us about these grateful former students, I wish I had contacted my own best teachers – the ones who made learning a pleasure and an adventure. I am sure that we all have had at least one teacher who was so wonderful that we still think of him or her with love and appreciation. 

Sadly, they are all gone now. But if I could go back in time, I would write a long list of thank you notes to quite a few of my teachers, both at Central High School and later at both Muhlenberg College and Temple University. 

But of all the wonderful teachers I had, my favorite was Dr. Harold Stenger, a legendary teacher of Shakespeare plays at Muhlenberg. He acted out all the roles, including the female characters, with different accents and unbridled passion. Even students with no interest whatsoever in Shakespeare – accounting majors, chemistry and sociology majors — fought to get into his classes and were crushed when they were rejected because the classes filled up so quickly. I was afraid to take his classes because the language of Elizabethan England was so foreign to me, but Dr. Stenger made it so accessible that he instilled in me a lifelong love of classic literature. His acting was as moving as any I have seen from Academy Award winners, and he was also a very nice person. I’d give anything to be able to tell him what an impact he had on my life. 

For those of you for whom it may not be too late, take my advice: pick up a pen, or a phone, and let your favorite teachers know how much they meant while they’re still alive. They will surely appreciate hearing from you. 

Take them to lunch if you can – you’ll get great conversation out of it, at the very least, and a walk down memory lane. And you’ll never have to regret not having done it.

Since I am so regretful of not having done this myself, I asked several friends and neighbors to write a brief tribute to their favorite former teacher. Here is what they wrote:

“I remember all of the upperclassmen talking about 'JZ,' and I don't mean the rapper. It was my first semester at Cabrini University, where Dr. Jerry Zurek, aka 'JZ,' taught mass media among other communications classes and was the chair of Loquitur, the school newspaper,” wrote Geri-Lynn Utter-Godfrey, an author and psychologist who earned her master's and doctorate degrees at Chestnut Hill College. “I remember getting butterflies in my stomach during his 9:35 a.m. mass communications class as he would create an environment that would lend itself to a healthy debate among students. At first, the butterflies I felt were because I was nervous, but as the semester progressed, I noticed that the butterflies were from the excitement I felt listening to and participating in intellectual discussions. Thanks for teaching me how to push myself, Dr. Zurek!” 

“I'm grateful for many teachers in my life, including several who inspired me to make teaching elementary school my first career,” wrote Rev. Cheryl Pyrch, pastor at Summit Presbyterian Church in Mt. Airy. “But I'm indebted to a college professor who led me to my second career as a pastor. I was an agnostic when I took two seminars on modern Jewish theology taught by Dr. Arnold Eisen at Barnard College. Our close reading of the texts and the deep discussions opened the way for me to become religious again. I can say with confidence that if it weren't for those classes 40 years ago, I wouldn't be at Summit Presbyterian Church.”

Thank you for celebrating teachers. They are absolutely under-represented and under-appreciated,” responded Paula Riley, a Chestnut Hill freelance writer and communications consultant. I can still hear Mrs. (Mary) Malone's laugh in my head! She filled our small sixth-grade classroom with a lightness and joy that softened all the challenges of adolescence at St. Joseph's School in Penfield (Rochester), New York.  

Malone was Riley’s homeroom teacher, and also her social studies, English and religion teacher. 

“She knew all of my five older brothers and sisters but always treated me as if I was the most unique and interesting person she ever met,” Riley said. “She spoke of the Middle Ages with such detail and passion, it seemed as though she lived back then…she made everybody feel equal and had zero tolerance for mean behavior towards others. She was gentle but fierce, and best of all, she laughed a lot.”

“A teacher who greatly influenced me was my high school French teacher, Miss McKenney,” said Caroline Meline, Germantown resident and author of “The Constant Dieter.” “I grew up in Malden, MA, in a middle-class Jewish home, and never in my life had I heard of art history. Miss McKenney had us reading about French painters from the 18th and 19th centuries, and I was amazed and enthralled. I went on to minor in art history in college and have continued to love art ever since. I became a frequenter of museums, and after I had children, I took them to museums. Sadly, I didn’t really appreciate what happened in her class until much later. She never knew what an impact she had on me. I wish I could tell her.”

“In 1997 I had an AP English teacher in my senior year of high school, George Yaghoobian, known as ‘Mr Y’ to his students,” wrote Vita Litvak, Executive Director of Allens Lane Art Center in West Mt. Airy. “I loved that he had everyone memorize monologues from the plays we were reading and perform them for the class. He inspired me to read and interpret great works of art through multiple perspectives – and most importantly with a sense of humor.”

“My favorite teacher, Judy McGraw, was my second and third-grade teacher at Myrtle Grove Elementary School in Miami,” wrote Karen Anderson, a West Mt. Airy resident and nurse at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “I had just moved from Quantico, Virginia, to Miami and felt lost, a total fish out of water. My father was in Vietnam, and my mom worked full-time. I remember Ms. McGraw’s kindness and encouragement. One day she stopped at our house for a visit. She talked with me and my mom for a long while; we had dinner together and became friends.”

This made school feel easier, and more safe, Anderson said. “I don’t really remember her teaching acumen, but I do remember, as Maya Angelou has written, how she made me feel. She was a true friend and role model and made a difference in my life. She went above and beyond to make sure I felt seen and cared for and connected.”

Len Lear can be reached at