Many of us still remember that one special teacher, the one who touched our lives in some powerful way and transformed learning for us. For many Jewish children in Western Massachusetts, that educator is gan (kindergarten) teacher Amy Meltzer. My son was lucky enough to have Morah Amy two years ago when he started school at Lander Grinspoon Academy, so I’m well aware of the magic and wonder that Amy brings to the classroom. From raising butterflies and tapping maple trees to make syrup, to writing and performing a gan opera, all while interweaving Hebrew and Jewish learning into a secular curriculum, it’s no wonder that this year, Morah Amy won the prestigious Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
I was lucky to snag a moment with Morah Amy just before the busy end of the school year to chat about the best part of being a kindergarten teacher, the gan opera, children’s books, and more.
What drew you to teaching Kindergarten?
I started with teaching first and second grade, but the year my daughter Zoe started kindergarten, the gan position opened up. When the head of school asked if I wanted it, I said definitely not, but eventually ended up saying yes. It was the one opportunity in the school to have an integrated classroom where I could teach general studies and judaics. I imagined—and I was right—that it would give me the most opportunity to be creative. Kindergarten is where we teach children to be learners and part of the school community.
What is the best part of being a kindergarten teacher?
The things the kids say. Every day I come home with many stories about really beautiful or really funny things my students say or do. It’s really joyful. Even when it’s exhausting at times, it’s still really joyful.
What’s the most challenging part of teaching kindergarten?
Figuring out how to set high standards and expect a lot from young children without expecting too much or setting unreasonable goals. They’re so capable, but… they’re also 5.
Music is a big part of your classroom, from daily singing while you play guitar to the Gan Opera. Explain how the opera came about.
I have a brother who is an opera expert and he was coming to visit me, and I wanted him to present something to the kids, and I wanted to somehow use his expertise in the classroom. I googled “Kindergarten, opera” and found out that there was actually a thing where classes will write their own scripts and music and put on a performance. The minute I read about this, I immediately wanted to do it with the kids.
I know the opera gets a lot of attention because it’s just so cute and super sweet. But for me, it really represents the willingness to take a risk, to just get an idea and follow through with it without knowing where it’s going to go. That’s what I aspire to do as a teacher. There’s always a tension between wanting things with known outcomes and wanting to do something safe and predictable—and that’s not a bad thing; there’s a real value in that for kids. But it’s also valuable to be able to take big risks that might flop.
In addition to teaching Kindergarten, you’re the author of the Jewish children’s books, “A Mezuzah on the Door” and “The Shabbat Princess.” What inspired you to write them?
“A Mezuzah on the Door” came out of my experience as a teacher. I was teaching about the mitzvah of hanging up a mezuzah and looked for a picture book on the topic, and there weren’t any. At that time, I thought maybe I could write it! But it wasn’t until years later when my daughter Ella was a breastfeeding baby and I had a lot of sitting down time on my hands that I started working on that manuscript. This really came out of a need as a teacher.
With “The Shabbat Princess,” I have two daughters who, at one point, loved princesses. I wanted something that would connect this phase of loving fancy things that lots of girls and many boys go through to something Jewish. The idea of being fancy for Shabbat is also more appealing to me than walking around in high heels or tiaras all week long.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a teacher?
I can’t imagine being anything else besides a teacher.