ARUN RATH, HOST:
After 40 years as an English teacher, Molly Pollak is not in the classroom this fall. She retired this year, and at her end-of-year party in early summer, Pollak got a book thick with letters from former students. The book reads like a guide to great teaching. Here's what you did that was really special. This is why you were so good. For our 50 Great Teachers series, NPR's Gabrielle Emanuel has this profile.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: The spare bedroom in Molly Pollak's second floor apartment in Manhattan holds four decades worth of classroom memories.
MOLLY POLLAK: Those are all my high school yearbooks. Those are my middle school yearbooks. There's more over here. There's dozens of them.
EMANUEL: The shelves are stacked two books deep, and look in the closet.
POLLAK: These are my old plan books, which I don't know why keeping them. I really need to throw them away.
EMANUEL: But there's one book Pollak will never throw away. It lives proudly in the front living room. The cover is a striking orange, and inside, there are letters - lots of them. And not just a paragraph or two - long, winding letters. Many tell of a life that was changed by one important teacher. Others capture a trying middle school moment.
Do you know how many letters are in here?
POLLAK: Yeah, I don't know. Maybe close to 75 - something like that.
EMANUEL: Pollak's exactly right. This book was the idea of one of her former students. When Ora Bayewitz-Meier heard Pollak was retiring, she reached out to other students and invited them to write in. They did, eagerly.
POLLAK: This is an early picture.
CLAIRE: This one?
EMANUEL: Claire (ph), Pollak's six-year-old granddaughter, likes the pictures best of all.
CLAIRE: You have the same face. It's weird.
EMANUEL: Bright eyes, thick hair - Pollak was just out of college when she started teaching in 1974.
POLLAK: I'm younger than your mommy is in that picture.
CLAIRE: If you were younger, mommy wasn't born.
POLLAK: That's exactly right.
EMANUEL: Claire might like the pictures, but for Pollak, it's the words that count.
CHRIS: (Reading) Dear Molly...
REBECCA ROSENTHAL: (Reading) I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that you changed my life.
SEEMA: (Reading) You were so engaging in class.
ROSENTHAL: (Reading) You always had a way of shooting right to the heart of the matter and holding your students to the highest standards.
SEEMA: (Reading) This gave me such strength and confidence.
STEVE HERMANOS: (Reading) I was a kid who wasn't getting this sort of encouragement elsewhere, and the effect of the positive attention was bracing and formative.
ROSENTHAL: (Reading) You were tough and loving, and that combination made you such a wonderful teacher.
MILES FINLEY: (Reading) I had no other teacher in middle school who also became a friend, a shrink, a stand-in parent and, eventually, a peer.
SEEMA: (Reading) For a while, you were one of the only adults I felt comfortable talking to about some pretty real and heavy stuff, and that meant everything to me.
CHRIS: (Reading) Any discussion that involved you and me also involved laughter.
NINA SHULMAN: (Reading) To throw my head back and really laugh.
CHRIS: (Reading) Here's the miracle - I never heard you say you didn't have time for me.
ROSENTHAL: (Reading) You will be deeply missed in the field.
SEEMA: (Reading) Thank you.
CHRIS: (Reading) Love, Chris (ph).
SEEMA: (Reading) Seema (ph).
ROSENTHAL: Rebecca Rosenthal (ph).
SHULMAN: Nina Shulman (ph).
HERMANOS: Steve Hermanos (ph).
FINLEY: Miles Finley (ph).
POLLAK: It's beautiful.
EMANUEL: It is beautiful.
EMANUEL: But it's more than just beautiful. There's something else going on here. When Pollak and her husband first sat down to read the book, this is what they saw.
POLLAK: The comments from the first year and the 40th year are very similar.
EMANUEL: It doesn't matter whether Pollock was at a public school, a parochial school, a private school, at Joan of Arc Junior High School, Ma'ayanot Yeshiva for Girls, or the elite Dalton School. She says it all the same. So Pollak did what English teachers do when they have a book in their hands. She looked across the common themes and found a thesis statement.
POLLAK: And the thesis statement is not what you think it is.
EMANUEL: It's not about a charismatic teacher. It's not about the symbolism in "The Great Gatsby." Instead, the thesis statement is essentially this.
JACKSON KRULE: Molly treated us like adults when no one else did. She challenged us to rise to the occasion.
EMANUEL: That's the letter from Jackson Krule. He had Ms. Pollak for 10th, 11th and 12th grade English at SAR High School in the Bronx. Pollak applied this thesis statement in three ways. First, honesty - at the very beginning of each school year, Pollak told the students she had only one rule.
POLLAK: I'll tell you the truth. You tell me the truth. The rest is commentary.
EMANUEL: Students learned to be candid about everything, even the mundane. Pollak remembers one day a few years ago, a kid was late to class, and an older kid was standing nearby - a typical high school scene, but what follows wasn't typical.
POLLAK: I said, oh, how come you're late? And the older kid said just tell her. Just tell her, whatever it is.
EMANUEL: The honest answer? He was in library and didn't feel like coming to class. Pollak says only by talking about something real can you actually get somewhere. The second key ingredient - class has to be rigorous.
POLLAK: If you really respect someone, then you expect the best from them. It's not you're the best. Oh, you'll be great, honey. Everything you do is marvelous.
EMANUEL: No, it's about demanding their hardest work. Then the students respect the subject, which helps the teachers respect the students.
POLLAK: Their ideas matter.
EMANUEL: Pollak wanted to make sure those ideas got heard, so about 20 years ago, she changed her whole classroom around. She got rid of the desks and hauled in a big oval conference table.
POLLAK: It's not everybody towards the teacher. You're engaging one another.
EMANUEL: So you're honest, you're rigorous, but the letters show there's one other thing. Number three - kids have complex lives, and teachers have to care. Pollak learned this 40 years ago in her very first classroom.
POLLAK: I taught in a school for pregnant teenagers in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In those days, you had to leave school if you got pregnant.
EMANUEL: These weren't just students. These were people learning their way in the world. Pollak took some students to the bookstore to buy their first book. For others, she stayed late to talk through hard relationships and difficult home lives. There's one thing Pollak wanted her students to know.
POLLAK: This is an adult in my world who cares about how I feel - not only how I think, but how I feel.
EMANUEL: Pollak says every teacher is capable of this. Every teacher can learn to inspire their students and earn a book like the one she has on her coffee table. Gabrielle Emanuel, NPR News.
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