“Teaching as a profession is great but it’s the students that make it worthwhile. The reason I go back year to year is all about the relationships I have with my students. I am invested in them, and I so enjoy seeing their awareness when they figure things out.”
~~ Susan ~~
Did you have a favorite teacher?
We all have been touched by teachers in different ways. Whether they were younger or older mentors, they taught us valuable skills and life lessons from pre-school days through graduate school.
I was excited to interview Susan Cohen, a young and impassioned history teacher at Magen David Yeshiva High School.
One of my favorite middle division teachers was Ms. Haberman. She was probably in her 20s. I will never forget that she played the song “The Sound of Silence” for us in Social Studies class. You may wonder why a Simon and Garfunkel song was presented in Yeshiva. I believe it was to teach us about the difficulties people have communicating with each other. It was only this year that I read the back story about this piece. Paul Simon wrote this song, with input from Art Garfunkel, as a tribute and comfort to Art Garfunkel’s college roommate Sanford Greenberg. Sanford lost his sight months after the two met. What an extraordinary message Ms. Haberman shared with us.
As I listened to Susan Cohen’s life story and what energizes her about her career, she reminded me of the lifelong positive impact teachers can have on their students. They do not only teach academic skills, but also contribute to making a child a better human being.
A Little History
Please meet Susan Cohen, a vibrant educator from our community. Susan, daughter of Melissa and Allan Cohen, is the oldest of five, with two brothers and two sisters. Her grandparents from both sides are of Syrian descent. Susan is close with her siblings, “There is nothing like family,” she says, and she declares that she is such an oldest child! The firstborn child tends to be outspoken, a perfectionist, goal-oriented, and independent.
When it comes to role models, Susan’s mother Melissa Cohen is a shining example. She is Susan’s go-to person for advice and Susan learned from Melissa that she could accomplish anything if she put her mind to it. “My mother imparted, ‘sometimes you try something new or different and you can do all the right things and it doesn’t work out. If that happens, sit back, and enjoy what you do have.’”
Susan grew up in Brooklyn and attended Yeshiva Shaare Torah for grade school. Susan wanted a new start for high school and was eager to meet new people, so she decided to head to Ilan High School in NJ. She was fortunate to have good friends in both Brooklyn and Deal. An added plus was that there were other girls traveling from Brooklyn to Deal.
Susan’s family moved to Deal around seven years ago when Susan was already enrolled in Brooklyn College. During the week, Susan stayed in Brooklyn with her aunt and uncle and she traveled to Deal to spend Shabbat with her parents and siblings.
Susan – the Child and Student
Susan was always mature for her age. “I wasn’t shy, but I wasn’t super social either. I preferred having my six close friends rather than being around tons of people.”
She was always “good at school” and was an honor student. Susan was blessed that her studies came easily to her, except for anything math related.
Susan’s inquisitive and logical nature could get her into trouble, as she asked a lot of questions. At twelve, when she posed her questions on religion and hashkafah to her teachers, the response often was that she was not old enough to understand the answers. In hindsight, Susan now accepts that as observant Jews we do not know the exact reasons behind all our mitzvot, but she accepts observance of mitzvot, and enjoys being Torah observant, even if she does not have a logical answer for why Hashem commanded us to observe all of His mitzvot.
College and Career Choices
Susan had a clear career plan when she started college. She was determined to become a lawyer. Susan received a full scholarship to Brooklyn College, and her practical nature went for the “no debt” path. She opted for saving money for law school tuition.
It turned out that Susan made the right choice about colleges. “My college experience was amazing. I had the best of both worlds. My fellow Jewish community members were always close by and made going to a secular college less of a culture shock. There were no Jews in my history classes, which forced me to meet other people, hear other perspectives, and see the real world.”
Susan took twenty-two credits a semester. Sixteen credits for five classes is what most full-time college students take. Susan also worked 35 to 40 hours a week throughout college. Her jobs included working in the wholesale and retail sectors, tutoring, and SAT preparation. How did Susan juggle so many classes with long work hours? “I staggered all my classes, going to school from morning to night on Mondays and Wednesdays and working on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.” She began Brooklyn College with a history major. “I am the biggest history nerd ever!” Susan exclaims. She took many law classes, although law was not an official minor. History is a natural major for future lawyers. A good lawyer knows not only the law itself, but also the historical context of legal changes.
An education minor fit well into Susan’s class schedule. She had no interest in pursuing a teaching career, but did enjoy the projects and could see the knowledge being helpful for the future.
Susan’s Pivot from Law to Education
What was the turning point for Susan? Her education professor reached out to her and asked her to consider taking the next class in the series. “The education classes were sequential. I liked the second class, so I took the third, and then I added an education major. It was never the plan, but I loved it!”
Susan decided on the seventh to twelfth grade track knowing that she would enjoy teaching a variety of subjects and teaching different students in each class.
She did her student teaching at James Madison High School, a large public school with 200-300 students per grade. “It was more of a culture shock than challenging – the public school environment versus the private school bubble I grew up in.”
I asked Susan about teaching high school kids who were not much younger than she was. In fact, a few were 20, the same age as she was!
Susan explained that finding the right balance between forming a good relationship with her students and being their teacher was the hardest challenge at the beginning of her career. The lines can get blurred, and it is necessary to establish clear boundaries. “I make clear to my students that they are individuals who have something valuable to contribute and that’s why I am there to teach them. I have something to add that they might not know. It’s also key to show no fear.”
In September, Susan sets the tone, rules, routine, and expectations for the coming year. Once her students adjust to the vibe of the class and the guidelines, the atmosphere can be more relaxed. “That is what’s best for learning. The students can ask questions and have them answered even if they are off topic.”
After completing her undergraduate degree, Susan enrolled at Rutgers University for a Master of Arts degree in American History. She taught at Hillel High School in Deal while attending graduate school. “At Hillel, I was able to figure out my teaching style. I prefer autonomy, but it’s important to check in to determine how things are going.” Susan has been accepted to a PhD program but put that on hold for the time being. Stay tuned!
Susan describes herself as self-aware, confident, caring and, most definitely an over-achiever.
Susan is still passionate about both history and law as they are so interconnected. Her undergraduate thesis in World History was about the Nuremberg trials and how judges drew from different legal systems worldwide. If Susan won the lottery, she would be a full-time student for the rest of her life! Susan is a genuine lifelong learner.
Connecting with her students is what lights Susan up. “When a student gets it or is struggling and finally figures things out, seeing that awareness is so rewarding.”
Susan keeps up with what is happening in our country’s government and legal system. She reads the actual court decisions not only the news stories. “I tell my students to read the source documents. Everyone is pushing their own narrative and I encourage them to dig deeper.”
Susan is grateful for being part of an amazing community and feels secure knowing that people are there for each other, no matter what they might need.
She teaches in her own community and sees her students often outside of school, at restaurants, stores, and shul. She is even first cousins with some of the kids. “In the summer, I take a break from school, hibernate, and meet up with friends.”
Connect with Susan at email@example.com.
Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach. Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching. Ellen is active in her community and is currently the Vice-President of Congregation Bnai Avraham in Brooklyn Heights. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org (www.lifecoachellen.com).