Hillel Teachers in Fleece
Hillel teachers wearing their fleece jackets: Brittany Borsen, Rachael Kellert, Lauren Partovich, Kim Stern, Michelle Wolfe and Betsy Wolf (Courtesy of Hillel Day School)

Each school is so grateful for their teachers that they have been coming up with new and creative ways to express their hakarat hatov (appreciation).

When everything shut abruptly last March, schools everywhere scrambled to figure out how to continue educating their students, with teachers quickly learning and adapting to new technology.

Even for those learning in person, the pandemic poses many challenges. Everyone has to wear masks, which muffles their voices, fogs their glasses and doesn’t allow for students to see their teachers smile. They also must socially distance and disinfect surfaces between uses. Still, teachers have truly risen to the occasion.

Dr. Darin Katz, head of school at Hillel Day School, declared: “Our teachers are truly our frontline heroes,” a sentiment echoed by Jewish day schools around Detroit. Each school is so grateful for their teachers that they have been coming up with new and creative ways to express their hakarat hatov (appreciation).

Gratitude at FJA

Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA) has been learning in-person all year, except when high schools were closed briefly in November and December. In order to limit in-person interaction, the school day was adjusted, and classes now run from 8:30-1:20, with only 60-minute classes.

FJA Director of Advancement Shana Kantor said, “This limits instructional time and makes projects and science labs harder to do in short periods of time. Teachers have to quickly disinfect the desks and surfaces between each class. FJA is known for very interactive lessons, and teachers have had to adjust their lessons to account for 6-foot separation between students.”

FJA English teacher Nicole Kahn wears a mask chain made by the Parent Liaisons on her class Instagram page. Courtesy of FJA

Deeply aware of how hard the teachers are working and how dedicated they are to their students, FJA has also made teacher appreciation a priority.

FJA Director of Community Engagement Julie Ohana said, “FJA has always had a culture of gratitude … but during these trying times, everyone has felt even stronger about showing appreciation.”

Early in the year, a group of parents, FJA’s “Parent Liaisons,” together with Ohana, decided to focus on faculty and staff appreciation. They have been planning parent events monthly that focus on this goal.

Joe Bernstein, FJA social studies instructor and parent, enjoying his candy-gram. Courtesy of FJA

Some projects have included making beaded mask chains, giving out personalized candy-grams and distributing challot from Dakota Bread to the teachers and staff.

FJA social studies instructor and department chair Melanie Sesi says these small gifts make her feel supported and contribute to the overall learning environment at school. “Keeping our masks clean by providing chains and keeping our bellies and hearts full with delicious food and thoughtful words brings so much light to an otherwise difficult time in the world,” she said.

FJA parent liaisons have given challot to teachers in appreciation of all they do.

The spirit of extra appreciation has even seeped to the students, who are also more grateful for their teachers than ever before.

FJA math instructor Christine Chadwick said, “Our students are great about thanking us for teaching during this crazy time and make an effort to say hello as they pass by my classroom. One student even emailed me during the summer just to say hi!”

‘Fabulous’ at Farber

Farber Hebrew Day School has been in-person for the Early Childhood Center and Elementary Divisions, with a hybrid of alternating in-person and virtual days for middle school and high school.

According to Naomi Gardin and Jenny Schwartz, co-PTO presidents at Farber, teachers had to tweak their teaching style in order to engage students simultaneously in the classroom and on the computer, and get used to new technology such as webcams, doc cams and microphones. Plastic desk dividers now separate all desks in the elementary school. Some teachers even create special learning packets and personally drop off supplies and coursework at their students’ homes.

Mearyl Diskin reads to students Ben Idler, Ezra Hazan and Leora Doppelt. Ariella Shaffren

Hardest of all, according to Gardin, is that there’s no in-person interaction with or feedback from parents because they’re not allowed in the school yet — another COVID precaution.

“Gone are the daily interactions with teachers in the hallways as parents are now absent from the building. Gone are hot lunch volunteers. Many of our standard yearly programs have become logistically impossible,” Gardin said.

To raise the spirits of the staff and to help parents get to know the staff virtually, the school launched Farber Fabulous Faculty in November.

Farber co-PTO presidents Naomi Gardin and Jenny Schwartz. Bariella Shaffren

Staff members were sent a Google form questionnaire. Then, Schwartz said, “We highlight one or two staff members on social media weekly, share their bios and pictures, celebrate them and learn more about them.”

Parents comment with appreciative messages, “likes” and share these Facebook posts, which have reached as many as 1,700 people.

Mearyl Diskin, first grade general studies and eighth grade algebra teacher, has been a much-loved teacher at Farber for eight years; her students even concocted a cheer in her honor complete with Jazz Hands (“Disky Disky Disky wooooo!”).

Her profile said she loves Korean food, would love to visit the Maldives, has a beloved pet dog called Snoop, and was especially touched when the school put on simchah music and danced with her at a pre-Shabbat assembly to celebrate her engagement.

Mearyl Diskin and Judah Khodorkovsky Ariella Shaffren

After her profile was shared on social media, Diskin said, “This was such a nice way to connect with families and for them to see me without my mask on! It was also so uplifting to hear the positive comments written on Facebook and passed on through the halls … It really brightened my day.”

Diskin was not the only one who felt this way; others teared up while reading the heartfelt comments.

Schwartz said, “Seeing how touched the staff is by this initiative has shown us just how truly powerful our positive words can be.”

Love at Hillel

For the ECC-Grade 8 students at Hillel Day School, learning has been in-person this year, except for about 10% of students whose families have opted for virtual learning.

Of the teachers, Dr. Katz said, “They are teaching in masks all day, every day. They are providing an authentic, excellent education while ensuring that our students maintain physical distancing, wash their hands, wear their masks properly, and abide by all health and safety protocols. At the same time, they place importance on the students’ social and emotional welfare during this unprecedented time.”

Head of School Dr. Darin Katz. Brett Mountain

Hillel PTO President Amy Sapeika said, “We’re always appreciative of our teachers and staff, but we’re working even harder this year to make sure they know how much we value them and all that they do for our students.”

Hillel parents sponsor a yearly mishloach manot (Purim treat packages) for the teachers, but they made this year’s extra fitting. “It had a superhero theme because they truly are our superheroes,” Sapeika said.

Hillel PTO President Amy Sapeika.

The Hillel Leadership Team has been bringing in coffee and sweet treats as an occasional “pick-me-up” for faculty and staff. They even purchased warm, comfortable Hillel fleece jackets for every faculty and staff member.

Julie Tigay has taught at Hillel for nine years; she teaches first and second grades and is the K-4 Language Arts coordinator. She enjoys the treats and loves her new jacket but says it’s the emotional support that matters most.

“It’s not about the material things to me,” Tigay said. “It’s about being in-person and feeling supported to do what I love … teach and support children. This year, more than ever, a little goes a long way. We have been showered with various treats, kind words and more ‘jean days’ than years past. But the true gift is being in-person with our students.”

Julie Tigay
Hillel teacher Julie Tigay.

COVID considerations in the classroom can make it seem tempting for some to give up teaching and start doing something infinitely easier, like perhaps lion taming or oil rigging … but clearly these teachers are sticking it out because it’s a life’s calling and a passion.

Local Jewish day schools and parent bodies certainly seem to know how fortunate they are to have such dedicated, hard-working teachers.

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