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Classroom Heroes

March 8, 2012 By:
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One stands on a chair to deliver a re-enactment of the Scopes Trial to his history classes at a Jewish day school. Another breaks from teaching English to serve as a confidante for public high school students in crisis, even as he deals with his own battle with cancer.

Both men will be among 20 teachers honored March 14 at the National Liberty Museum's annual "Teacher as Hero" awards.

They are notable not just for their impact on students, but their unconventional links to the Jewish community.

             

In Neshaminy High School English teacher Dennis Howie's case, that developed over years of marriage to a Jewish woman and an "academic fascination" with the religion.

The 44-year-old had just started his teaching career when he met his future wife, Jennifer, at Twin Oaks Day Camp, where she worked as a counselor and he oversaw the nature program.

 "wasn't really on the table when we got married," said Howie, though he agreed to raise their two sons Jewish.

The couple chaired an interfaith group at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, a Reform synagogue, for a while, and Howie noticed a deepening connection to the culture. "I was so used to disagreeing with religion when I was growing up," he said, and yet in Judaism he found an openness toward argument and discussion that fit into his views. About five years ago, he converted.

Religion, of course, doesn't surface much in public school settings, where the Blue Bell resident has spent 19 years teaching English.

A strong believer that veteran teachers should challenge lower-level students, Howie has made a point of splitting his schedule between basic and advanced-placement sections, fellow English teacher Tara Huber wrote in an award nomination letter.

In addition to teaching English, Howie received training to lead an assistance program that provides upwards of 200 at-risk students each year with resources to help them cope with anything from depression to substance abuse.

"Dennis has a compassion for these students like no other teacher I have ever met," wrote Lisa Krieger, a chemistry teacher who co-directs the program with him. "I can only imagine the number of lives he has saved over the years."

Likewise, Howie connects with students after school as an adviser for the literary magazine and the school's first gay-straight alliance.

Students return his extra attention by coming back to visit him well beyond their college years. A group of current students even took it upon themselves to raise money for medical treatments when Howie was diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors last May and had to fly to specialists in New Orleans for surgery.

After returning to teach last fall, he recently took another five-week medical leave to remove more tumors on his pancreas and liver.

In spite of the potentially deadly diagnosis, he has become more optimistic, patient and caring with his students than ever before, Krieger said, showing them "that they can overcome whatever adversity comes their way."

David Tatum

Like Howie, David Tatum has a background in public schools, having spent 34 years teaching geography and social studies in the Upper Darby School District.

Five years ago, he took a position at Torah Academy, one of the few non-Jewish teachers at the modern Orthodox school in Wynnewood. Though he's an Episcopalian -- serving as a lay leader in his hometown church in Malvern -- Tatum said he's enjoyed learning about Judaism.

Principal Rabbi Shmuel Jablon said anyone who observes the slideshows, maps, flags, bulletin boards, artifacts and discussion in Tatum's room knows right away that they've entered a "history lab."

Tatum even shares his experiences volunteering for the Marine Corps at age 17 to teach about the Vietnam War. A photo of him in Life magazine with explosions in the background never fails to make an impression, he said. He tells the students how he signed up for a second combat tour in Vietnam even after being wounded in the first, and how he later joined in protesting the war.

It was after returning from active duty that Tatum took advantage of the G.I. Bill to become a teacher. Now, the 64-year-old joked, "I'm as old as Israel," but he still relishes challenging students with provocative essay test questions.

"He is the kind of history teacher who makes history majors," Jablon wrote in a nomination letter. "His classroom control, achieved not through fear but rather through love, high standards and care for all, is unmatched."

Aside from history, Jablon said, Tatum shows students organizational and note-taking skills, plus memory tricks that allow them to identify almost every country on a blank map.

Some students even opt to spend extra time with him during the stock market and model airplane clubs he runs, Jablon added.

The trick, Tatum said, is presenting information in multiple, memorable ways.

Tatum recalled talking to former colleagues who suggested that he retire "so you can get up and do what you want to do every morning.

"I told them, 'That's what I'm doing right now.' I want to come to Torah Academy and teach."

 

Both men will be among 20 teachers honored March 14 at the National Liberty Museum's annual "Teacher as Hero" awards.

Dennis Howie

They are notable not just for their impact on students, but their unconventional links to the Jewish community.

In Neshaminy High School English teacher Dennis Howie's case, that developed over years of marriage to a Jewish woman and an "academic fascination" with the religion.

The 44-year-old had just started his teaching career when he met his future wife, Jennifer, at Twin Oaks Day Camp, where she worked as a counselor and he oversaw the nature program.

Converting "wasn't really on the table when we got married," said Howie, though he agreed to raise their two sons Jewish.

The couple chaired an interfaith group at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, a Reform synagogue, for a while, and Howie noticed a deepening connection to the culture. "I was so used to disagreeing with religion when I was growing up," he said, and yet in Judaism he found an openness toward argument and discussion that fit into his views. About five years ago, he converted.

Religion, of course, doesn't surface much in public school settings, where the Blue Bell resident has spent 19 years teaching English.

A strong believer that veteran teachers should challenge lower-level students, Howie has made a point of splitting his schedule between basic and advanced-placement sections, fellow English teacher Tara Huber wrote in an award nomination letter.

In addition to teaching English, Howie received training to lead an assistance program that provides upwards of 200 at-risk students each year with resources to help them cope with anything from depression to substance abuse.

"Dennis has a compassion for these students like no other teacher I have ever met," wrote Lisa Krieger, a chemistry teacher who co-directs the program with him. "I can only imagine the number of lives he has saved over the years."

Likewise, Howie connects with students after school as an adviser for the literary magazine and the school's first gay-straight alliance.

Students return his extra attention by coming back to visit him well beyond their college years. A group of current students even took it upon themselves to raise money for medical treatments when Howie was diagnosed with pancreatic neuroendocrine tumors last May and had to fly to specialists in New Orleans for surgery.

After returning to teach last fall, he recently took another five-week medical leave to remove more tumors on his pancreas and liver.

In spite of the potentially deadly diagnosis, he has become more optimistic, patient and caring with his students than ever before, Krieger said, showing them "that they can overcome whatever adversity comes their way."

David Tatum

Like Howie, David Tatum has a background in public schools, having spent 34 years teaching geography and social studies in the Upper Darby School District.

Five years ago, he took a position at Torah Academy, one of the few non-Jewish teachers at the modern Orthodox school in Wynnewood. Though he's an Episcopalian -- serving as a lay leader in his hometown church in Malvern -- Tatum said he's enjoyed learning about Judaism.

Principal Rabbi Shmuel Jablon said anyone who observes the slideshows, maps, flags, bulletin boards, artifacts and discussion in Tatum's room knows right away that they've entered a "history lab."

Tatum even shares his experiences volunteering for the Marine Corps at age 17 to teach about the Vietnam War. A photo of him in Life magazine with explosions in the background never fails to make an impression, he said. He tells the students how he signed up for a second combat tour in Vietnam even after being wounded in the first, and how he later joined in protesting the war.

It was after returning from active duty that Tatum took advantage of the G.I. Bill to become a teacher. Now, the 64-year-old joked, "I'm as old as Israel," but he still relishes challenging students with provocative essay test questions.

"He is the kind of history teacher who makes history majors," Jablon wrote in a nomination letter. "His classroom control, achieved not through fear but rather through love, high standards and care for all, is unmatched."

Aside from history, Jablon said, Tatum shows students organizational and note-taking skills, plus memory tricks that allow them to identify almost every country on a blank map.

Some students even opt to spend extra time with him during the stock market and model airplane clubs he runs, Jablon added.

The trick, Tatum said, is presenting information in multiple, memorable ways.

Tatum recalled talking to former colleagues who suggested that he retire "so you can get up and do what you want to do every morning.

"I told them, 'That's what I'm doing right now.' I want to come to Torah Academy and teach."

 

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