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Teachers Who Inspired Teachers: Professor Karen

Terrific Tuesday to all of you and happy second day of Teacher Appreciation Week! In this third post of the Teachers Who Inspired Teachers series, we hear from a sixth grade teacher as he shares the powerful story of his professor and how she continued to lead, teach and inspire future educators despite the greatest of obstacles.

Professor Karen, by Ben Kovacs

My mother named me Benjamin T Kovacs. You're probably objecting, "Everyone has to have a full middle name legally right?" Turns out, you don't. It's something my sixth graders find sort of magical. Being cool in their eyes can be a challenge, so I'll take it. I teach general education at Burley School- a Chicago Public School on the north side. I went into teaching to develop close relationships with kids. I've always wanted to contribute to a society in a social platform and I strongly argue that education is the most effective way of creating change and growth.

I had a professor in undergrad who helped me see that change and growth are ushered in strongest through building strong relationships. Karen Levine came into the classroom each day always in motion. She never settled in the front or spent any time unpacking her things. Sporting a head full of curls, she floated from desk to desk- complimenting a new pair of shoes, asking about the wedding she knew you went to last week, or laughing about a joke she just overheard. To be sure, not one class went by without her saying my name.  It wasn't just, "Good morning," but, "Good morning, Ben." At first I found it a "waste" of time, but then I realized a few weeks in- she was expressing an interest in each of us, which led to trust, commitment, and most importantly, worth. Karen Levine made every future teacher feel worthy.

Once I built the foundational relationship with Karen, I found out she was sick. It took me a while to figure out. As a 19-year-old, I was as self involved as all of my peers. I looked at my professor and never really saw her. It took time to recognize the veins lying just below the surface of her skin. I didn't notice that she was wearing a wig or that her cough might be abnormal. When I finally realized that my teacher was sick, I was crushed.

Despite having cancer, she still powered through. She smiled everyday and expressed interest in all of our lives. She had students over for dinner and talked to me about Judaism at my Jesuit university. She even brought over a bottle of olive oil when I invited her and her husband for a terribly low budget spaghetti dinner. And she ate every bite of that horrid pasta. Karen wasn't afraid of the informal relationship that developed. The relationship was the important part! It led me to read closer for her class, engage in deeper conversation, and seek out the next class she'd teach the next semester. She agreed to be my advisor and probably talked to me more about my family and friendships than about the series of classes I'd take.

And then of course we arrive at the sad part- the part where I found myself at her synagogue. Standing room only - all sorts of people crowded together to mourn her passing. Karen led a full life and there were so many of her former students who wanted, who needed, to say thank you to such an incredible woman.

When I think about it today, I still get choked up. A sea of educators, young and old, came together to celebrate a teacher who will make them stronger teachers. Karen passed on her gift of relationship building to us all. They all go out and teach, all who undoubtedly take the time to have a conversation about the smallest things with their students, letting them know they care, that their lives are worthy of interest and intrigue. A piece of such a remarkable woman shining through with each smile. Every day as my class exits the building and we high five I remember how important it is to say their name and let them know that they personally matter. I'm a better teacher because of you, Karen.

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