27 May 2011
23 Iyar 5771
This week at our Annual Meeting we celebrated another successful school year and paid tribute to our outgoing Associate Head of School, Dr. Susie Tanchel, for her 14 years of service. As part of that tribute, I was honored to share some thoughts about education, Torah, Susie, and the contributions she has made to our school. In lieu of my standard message, I would like to share with you these words about an extraordinary educator.
Tribute to Susie Tanchel at Gann Academy Annual Meeting, May 24, 2011
It is humbling to have the honor and responsibility of saying a few words about Dr. Susie Tanchel, especially in the presence of the extraordinary educators, scholars, and leaders in the room, so many of whom have been such important parts of her journey. With your permission, I will give it my best shot.
How does Gann Academy say good-bye to Susie Tanchel after 14 years? How do you say good-bye to someone whose name is synonymous with this institution (both New Jew and Gann)? How do you say good-bye to someone who has given so much of herself to this school and this community since the day it opened in the little schoolhouse on Turner Street?
For those of you who have not followed Susie’s career at Gann or who have not gotten to know her well, let me just review some of her accomplishments over the past 14 years:
Susie was hired by our mentor, Rabbi Danny Lehmann, to be the First Tanakh teacher of the New Jewish High School of Greater Boston.
She created our Tanakh curriculum.
She built our Tanakh Department.
Along the way, she received her Ph.D. in Bible and Education, bridging the worlds of scholarship and pedagogy and working with her mentors, Professors Marc Brettler and Sharon Feiman Neimser.
She wrote her dissertation and many articles that have been the focus of international conversation about the teaching of Biblical Criticism and the Documentary Hypothesis to high school students.
She returned to Gann after finishing her dissertation in the role of Associate Head of School.
She has given us a vision for what it will, ultimately, mean for us to become a Professional Development School.
She has helped to create and sustain our mentoring and new teacher induction program.
She has helped to build our Faculty Rounds Program and has inspired supportive donors in the process!
She has worked with our Department Chairs to help them develop their skills and capacities as teacher leaders.
She has taught a loyal following of Tanakh students who adore her, including Gann alumni, adult learners, and teachers, both locally and nationally.
She has taught aspiring teachers in Brandeis’ DeLeT Program.
She has written and taught about pluralism, both locally and nationally (and occasionally let me tag along!).
She has facilitated case studies at the PEJE Conference and has written leadership case studies that are being used by leaders and educators both at Gann and in schools around the country.
She has mentored and supported her colleagues.
She is now beginning the JTS-AVICHAI-sponsored Day School Leadership Training Institute, a testament to her commitment to her own learning and growth.
She has been named Head of School of the Jewish Community Day School.
She has cared deeply for the health, happiness, and well-being of every Gann student and has been humbly and courageously willing to model her own journey in an effort to make Gann as inclusive a place as it can be for every member of our community.
She has infused Gann every day with her love of and commitment to Torah, Judaism, pluralism, teaching, learning, and leading.
She has left a deep and lasting mark on all of us who have learned from her and with her.
Susie, that’s a pretty impressive resume for having worked in only one place for the past 14 years! And yet, to anyone who knows you, who has worked with you, and who has learned from you and learned with you, we know that it doesn’t even begin to capture what is so special about you.
So, I want to paint a picture of who you are as an educator, a leader, and a member of this community, and I want to do so and to honor you by attempting to teach everyone here three things about which I know you are passionate and that I think capture aspects of who you are as an educator and as a person. I know you wouldn’t want us to leave here tonight without some learning about Torah and education.
The first educational concept about which you are passionate is the Instructional Triangle. The Instructional Triangle is a pedagogical notion that the student, the teacher, and the subject matter are connected like the points of a triangle. Great teachers do not attend to just one of these points, but rather are able to manage the delicate balance between all three. Susie, you are so deeply and passionately engaged with each point of the Instructional Triangle, which is what makes you so uniquely talented as a teacher.
Subject Matter: You are a true scholar. You are deeply and authentically immersed in Torah – it is your language, your lens on the world, your love. You wrote a new piece of Biblical scholarship and anyone who knows you well knows your love of H – the Holiness School.
Student: I do not know an educator who loves and who respects her students more than you do. What a tribute to you that so many alumni are here tonight! Why do your students love you so much?
Because you push them, you stretch them, you challenge them. You bring the text to life for them because you are able to find ways to connect Torah and the process of learning Torah to their curious minds. You understand their journeys as learners and as Jews and, somehow, you are able to create a space in your classroom for each individual’s questions and expressions of their Jewish identities. As a true pluralist, you are able to generate makhloket (debate) and high level critical thinking while somehow making it safe for students to honor and even guard their deeply held beliefs.
Teacher: Susie, you are a teacher’s teacher. You understand that, unless teachers are deeply reflective about their practice, they cannot learn and grow. You are the first person to make your practice public and always willing to use yourself and your teaching as the text for others to unpack and learn from. And you are never satisfied with your own teaching, always refining, reexamining, stretching yourself to learn new things and develop your practice.
You not only teach the instructional triangle. You live it and model it for all of us.
The second of your favorite concepts that I want to share is one that any student of yours can quote: “grammar leads to meaning.” If you have a mantra, this is it.
What does this mean and why is it significant? It means that if you take the time to carefully read and dissect Biblical words and verses, you find that in the Torah’s choices of grammar, syntax, words, and phrases, you find profound literary, ethical, and theological messages.
But what is the significance of this to who you are as an educator, a leader, and a person? Well, of course, it defines your pedagogy. I have never met a person who can get the average high school student so fired up about grammar. That is because you insist that, if we focus closely enough on the details (of a text or of our lives), if we hone our ability to read carefully, ask thoughtfully, and interpret meaningfully, then we have the opportunity to discover chiddush – newness, new insights, new revelations – almost anywhere.
What is amazing about you is that you really believe this. It informs not only how you read and teach texts. It informs how you participate in meetings, your expectations that conversation and collaboration will be based on a rigorous analysis of data, a close reading of situations, and commitment to unpacking just about anything! Yes, at times it seems you are in a constant state of unpacking, which is really a code word for learning. This is a stance toward the world that has rubbed off on all of us!
Finally, we have all heard you describe how, whenever you have to give a talk, if you open up the Parsha, it always speaks to the moment or the occasion. (Why do I think that has as much to do with the reader as with the text?). So, I could not honor you without, at least, a thought from this week’s Parsha.
This week we begin the book of Bemidbar (Numbers), a fitting parsha for a night honoring a major moment on your personal and professional journey.
The Midrash in Bemidbar Rabbah 1:6 teaches us that the Torah was given with three things: Aish-Fire, Mayim-Water, Midbar – Desert or Wilderness. It goes on to cite verses in which each of these is associated with Torah. Why, the midrash asks, is the Torah given with these three things? Because they are all chinam – free, available to all. So, too, is Torah free and available to all.
On the surface, the midrash’s answer to its question is perfect for you and the impact you have made as a teacher of Torah. You have been marbeh Torah – you have spread Torah, you have taught Biblical grammar to kids who barely knew the aleph bet, you have made people who don’t believe in God fall in love with Biblical exegesis. Torah is chinam – available to all, because of teachers who have the gift of being able to make it available to all. And you certainly do, par excellence.
But, I actually think that this Midrash was written for you for a different reason. Just as these three words are associated with Torah, so, too, do they capture what is so special about you. Let me work backwards.
Midbar (Wilderness) – The Midrash also teaches us that the Torah given in the midbar in order to teach us that anyone who does not make himself or herself open like the wilderness cannot acquire Torah. You are the quintessential midbar – you are a journeyer, a seeker, a learner, open to texts, people, and the world and ready to be transformed by them.
Mayim (Water) – The Torah is often compared to water because of its life-giving, sustaining power. As a teacher and a mentor, you lead people to water. You help people realize that they have a thirst for learning and for growth that they didn’t even know they had, and then you not only quench that thirst but help them develop the capacities to drink for themselves. Like a gardener, you water your students and everyone around you.
And, last but not least, Aish (Fire). Need I say more? You are simply on fire with passion for teaching and learning, for pluralistic Jewish education, and for Gann Academy. You teach and lead from the heart and, because of this, your energy and your light are contagious. Susie, so many times we have discussed Gann’s powerful three word slogan: “B’orcha nir’eh or – By your light we see light.” Tonight I want to thank you for illuminating our community for the past 14 years.
On a more personal note, we have known each other since I was Director of Athletics and Extracurricular Activities and you were a Tanakh teacher at New Jew. I did not exactly know what to expect when I returned to a very different Gann Academy after a seven- year hiatus, let alone became Head of School. Not only did you welcome me back and support me through that transition, but you have been my teacher, my thinking partner, my chevruta, my supporter, and my friend for every step of this incredible journey. It won’t be the same without you. I am just happy that you’ll be seven minutes down the road and that we are becoming colleagues of a different sort. I’m looking forward to the next stage of our journey and our friendship.
Mazal tov. Thank you. We love you. We’ll miss you.
Rabbi Marc Baker