For years, people urged Joel Glazer to write a book about the lessons he learned as a social studies teacher. Despite the volumes he has had students write over his 51 years in the classroom, he found it hard to sit down to complete an assignment of his own.
But he had a champion close to his heart: his son Harry, communications director for the Rutgers University libraries and a seasoned writer.
The two collaborated on a book, It Happened in My Classroom, and they self-published it last month.
“At my age, you begin to fear that you’ll forget things,” Glazer, now in his 70s, told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview on Feb. 3. “And there was a lot I wanted to say.”
In the book, he shares the innovations that have made his classes the kind that students describe as life-changing and unforgettable.
“I want to get across that teaching is not a stop-gap until you land a better job, the way it is for many people,” he told NJJN. “It’s a lifetime commitment, something you should always be trying to perfect.”
Glazer taught for almost four decades at Scotch Plains/Fanwood High, and also at the Jewish Educational Center’s Bruriah High School for Girls and Rav Teitz Mesivta Boys’ High, both in Elizabeth, where he lives. He retired from the Scotch Plains school in 2006, but still teaches part-time at Bruriah — where he taught his own daughter and stepdaughters, and currently his granddaughter.
Wherever he has taught, his goal is to have students teach themselves. “Somebody else telling you something is never as effective as what you tell yourself,” he said. To that end, he came up — and is still coming up — with ways to involve students in research. As computers and the Internet changed the way they find information, he has adapted — with some reservations — but his goals held steady, to challenge them to connect as creatively as possible.
He has had students design registration plates depicting historic or cultural characters. He’s asked them to write letters urging the Baseball Hall of Fame to induct a particular player. Recently, he had students compose a guest list for a dinner party composed of characters they had studied, giving their reasons.
The Facebook site Harry created for him last year, “Former students of Joel Glazer,” gives a glimpse of how well that worked. Decades after the fact, people talk of how vividly they remember playing “Diplomacy” games, impersonating historical characters, and reenacting history with scripts, costumes, and props.
A student from the 1970s reminisced about the time they played softball to illustrate Chicago’s “Black Sox” scandal of 1919. “Mr. Glazer was one of the finest teachers I have ever had,” he wrote. “He was very tough, but fair. And he taught by teaching us how to teach.”
He was helped along the way, he writes in his book, by his late wife, Peggy, and his wife of the past 30 years, Shulamith, both of them dedicated teachers themselves.
Mostly, he is remembered for being engaging even as he taught the tough stuff. That pleases him; in his youth he wanted to be an entertainer — and for five years did work on the radio with Nachum Segal, host of the JM in the AM radio program. Glazer said the classroom gave him a stage that has proved deeply satisfying.
Not everyone approved of his methods. Some parents objected to subject matter they thought was inappropriate, and some administrators did, too. “I’m surprised I wasn’t ever fired,” Glazer told NJJN.
In a forward to the book, former Bruriah principal Chaya Newman describes him as unforgettably unique and creative, and always concerned with “the fragile self-image of the student.”
“Lest you think that Mr. Glazer was totally a gift from heaven, you would be mostly right, but at times he was a trial to work with,” she admits. “It is good that he was ‘too good’ to let go!”
Harry, one of the eight children in Joel and Shuli Glazer’s combined family, said working with his father was easy. He’d say, “Dad, tell me a story,” and the anecdotes would tumble out.
“I grew up hearing him talk about his experiences at school, and all his ideas about teaching, and I’ve met so many people he taught,” he said. “I’m really glad we did it.”