Educators honored: I feel like I have a million children

Judy Macktinger used to prop both feet on her religious school desk and crack her gum as loudly as she could. David Nigel got kicked out of class for misbehavior.

They were their teachers' worst nightmares.

Decades later, the two Peninsula Temple Sholom teachers have pretty much mastered the art of running interference so that their students don't act up like they used to do.

Macktinger, a level alef Hebrew instructor, finds games work best for capturing her fourth-grade students' attention. Nigel, who teaches fifth and seventh grades, prefers a more formal approach in the classroom. He saves the games for the basketball court.

"I'm 56 and I still play basketball with the kids during [class] breaks. When I stop doing that, then I'll be old," he said.

Recognizing the instructors' commitment — Nigel has spent 25 years at the Reform congregation, Macktinger, 15 — Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame recently honored both educators at a recent Shabbat service.

"I remember our first faculty meeting this year. David went around the table pointing at the other teachers, `You were my student and you were my student.' It was incredible" said Rabbi Andrew Straus.

In fact, about one-third of the synagogue's religious-school teachers studied under Nigel's watchful eye, among them his daughter. But Nigel says all of his students are his children. "I feel like I have a million children out there though, or at the very least a thousand."

Macktinger feels much the same way.

Among the many children she has taught the alef bet to over the years are her daughters, whose letters were among the memoirs of the honored instructors that were contributed to the temple newsletter.

"Dear Mommy, Where can I begin," Sara Macktinger wrote. "I remember hiding in the youth lounge, so nervous to study Hebrew."

Like many students, Sara recalled "dramatizing Hebrew letters," "huddling in the shape of a bet" and playing Hebrew tic-tac-toe.

Games and physical exercises "get kids thinking about Hebrew letters without writing or reading, and they love it," Macktinger said.

Both Macktinger and Nigel try a variety of techniques with their students — altering those that are successful to fit each class.

Both also hone their skills by teaching at other institutions. In addition to working Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Peninsula Temple Sholom, Macktinger tutors Hebrew about five hours each week and teaches at San Mateo's Peninsula Temple Beth El.

Nigel, who teaches fifth- and seventh-graders at Peninsula Temple Sholom, also teaches at Burlingame's McKinley School and recently retired as commissioner of the Jewish Youth Athletic League.

Why take on such a heavy teaching load? "You know I'm in it for the big dollars," Nigel teased. "Actually I really love the kids. I love teaching."

Because his students are older, Nigel uses group problem solving exercises and discussion sessions as opposed to games.

He added that the subject matter he teaches to the seventh grade– theology and Holocaust — is so compelling that "the kids are really engaged."

In 1972, when Nigel began teaching about the Holocaust, there were no curriculum guides. So he created his own, bringing in survivors to talk to the class.

His curriculum has evolved over the years to include Holocaust literature, art, poetry, geography and a Yom HaShoah service that the students create themselves.

The kids respond well, Nigel said, but "the Holocaust is easy to make real." Teaching more abstract topics like Israel's culture and history, which Nigel did for a year, is more difficult.

But often, Nigel and Macktinger agreed, the impact of an instructor or class isn't evident until the student grows up.

According to Straus, when he and Rabbi Gerald Raiskin visit the synagogue's college students, "they always ask about Judy and David."

"That tells me I've been pretty much on track," Nigel said, adding, "A lot of kids say they don't get much out of Sunday school. It isn't until later in life that they realize `Hey, I learned values. I learned how to be a good person.' That's truly the best evaluation you can have."