Writing about my fourth-grade teacher led me back to my childhood neighborhood for coffee with Mr. Joffee.
A few months ago, I shared a story on Upworthy about how my fourth-grade teacher changed my life.
He gifted me with a lifelong love of learning, and he was a patient and compassionate mentor during one of the most difficult times of my childhood.
After the story came out, I was surprised to see so many shares, comments, messages, and emails from people who knew my teacher personally.
Monte Joffee is remembered by many of his students as a teacher who inspired them, no matter how long it’s been since they were in his class.
Many people posted about him, and many more encouraged me to reconnect with my teacher.
Those who had seen him or worked with him recently had wonderful things to say about what he’s done as an educator. Those who, like me, had him as a teacher when they were young shared their memories of his classroom and the unique way he inspired a love for learning.
To my surprise, the morning after the essay was published, I checked my messages and found a heartfelt note from Mr. Joffee himself.
He did remember me (I didn’t think he would!). He wrote to me while he was attending a conference about education for global citizenship. It was great to hear (as I suspected) that he was still very much involved in education. Others who knew him left comments on Facebook and told me about his accomplishments.
I asked Mr. Joffee if we could get together.
Since I left my old neighborhood in Queens, I have only come back to visit a few times. I suggested that he choose a location since I hadn’t been there in years, and he chose a coffee shop right around the corner from the apartment I grew up in. I remember going there a few times with my parents.
I can’t say that Mr. Joffee looked much like he did 31 years ago, but I’m sure he couldn’t say that about me either!
Since the last time I saw him, his career had extended well beyond being an elementary school teacher; his dedication to students and education grew exponentially since my last day at P.S. 69 in 1985.
While he was teaching, Mr. Joffee saw many issues in urban education that he knew he could do something to help solve. Eventually, he left the public school to cofound the Renaissance School (which later became the Renaissance Charter School) in 1993.
Mr. Joffee’s new school was right across the street from where we were sitting.
He invited me to take a tour, and it was exactly the type of school I would have imagined he could create. There were so many open spaces. There was so much emphasis on creativity. We carefully walked through and greeted the staff and students who were there for the summer programs, and every child stopped to say hello to us. Every child knew they were important and that they belonged.
Andrew Ronan, a former classmate of mine, might have said it best after reading my story. He was a teaching artist at Renaissance for a while, and he wrote to me: “On the first day I walked in I felt like I was back in my 4th grade classroom. There was so much positive and productive work going on, students and teachers were on a first name basis and learning together. Mr. Joffee had a profound influence on me and my classmates many years ago, it was amazing to see that impact magnified to an entire school.”
Of course, Mr. Joffee furthered his own education, too.
When he finished his studies at Teachers College at Columbia University, he became Dr. Joffee.
Gonzalo Obelleiro, Ph.D., told me: “Monte genuinely loves people. He consistently shows interest in individual persons, in the unique point of view they have to offer, regardless of whether they write Ph.D. after their name, the jargon they use, or the shoes they wear. As a younger scholar I often felt the pressure to have to prove my worth amongst colleagues, but Monte always treated me as an equal. Despite his superior knowledge and experience—or because of it, I am sure he would say—he is the perennial student, always excited to learn even from his own students and juniors.”
Dr. Joffee (who insists that I call him Monte from now on) is retired now, but his passion for education burns brighter than ever.
He is working on a national K-12 education reform proposal called "The Will to Achieve." Monte believes this proposal will revolutionize American education by re-welcoming parents, communities, supporters, and entrepreneurs into the education tent. It will enable students to become autodidactic learners.
"The Will to Achieve" will also rebuild the schoolhouse in communities where there has been an uneasy match between the people and the school.
When I asked Monte to estimate how many students he had inspired throughout his career, we were both surprised when the number added up to about 7,600.
What if even a third of those students went on to make the same type of impact he made? Do teachers know how many lives they touch and how many people they inspire to do just as they do? Do they know that the children in front of them will remember those compassionate moments and valuable life lessons when they become adults? Do they know that they aren’t just teaching — they are building character, sculpting hope, and helping to raise young men and women?
An African proverb says “it takes a village to raise a child.” Teachers like Monte prove that sometimes, the greatest inspiration can come from just one person in that village.