As the school year begins in the Southfield neighborhood of Detroit, a beloved and devoted teacher, Eliezer Cohen, will not be in his sixth grade classroom. His absence was not expected. Cohen had not missed an hour, much less a day, in the 39 years that he had taught at the local private school. His new students were eagerly anticipating the opportunity to learn from this best teacher as many of their parents had done before them.
But Cohen’s chair remained empty this past Monday morning. Cohen suffered a heart attack on Saturday morning and passed away later in the day. The entire community has been left in a state of shock and deep mourning. I am sure that the foundations of the building itself shook as the funeral procession passed by the school where Eliezer Cohen had impacted the lives of so many students.
Cohen was a legendary teacher. I was his principal for the five years I spent in Michigan and many years later I still mention his name often. While we did not always agree on all issues, I always admired him as an educator. As I mourn his passing, I reflect on what constitutes teaching excellence and what made him so special.
Cohen expected the best from his students. He did not accept mediocre work nor allow lazy attitudes. But what made his demanding approach unique is that he did so out of a love and care for his students that was simply unparalleled. His demands were thus always appropriate and educationally valid. Cohen would talk with conviction but also listen with the utmost empathy, displaying sensitivity and humor that won over every student. Children appreciated and even welcomed the hard work that was demanded because it was apparent to them that every assignment had been tailored to ensure their progress and would enhance their chances for academic success.
This is the most powerful equation for success as a teacher: demanding yet loving, a will of iron combined with a heart of gold. It is a tricky balancing act that demands mastery of both subject matter and educational methodology, absolute integrity and sacrificial devotion.
Cohen had all the above, explaining why a day of teaching was never missed and how he was able to inspire students, who in turn excelled under his tutelage. It explains why students visited his classroom years after graduation and eagerly awaited the day that their own children would benefit from being in his class. It is the stuff of which legends are made.
I bid farewell to a paradigm of teaching excellence. Even though I was his principal, I guess in the end I was really his student as well. It is my hope that his memory will continue to serve as an inspiration to all those who benefited from knowing him and from learning in the magical place that was his classroom for 39 years.