‘Iron Fist In A Velvet Glove’


Talk about Jewish continuity: Last year, Tirzah Rothschild had a young boy in her fourth-grade class at Yeshiva Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch whose grandfather had been her student. The boy’s father had also been a pupil at the school while Rothschild served as principal. As she begins her 52nd year at the Washington Heights school this fall, these multi-generational connections are not uncommon.

The daughter of teachers (her father taught physics and biology along with advanced Jewish subjects in Hamburg and, later, biology at a New Jersey college; her mother taught piano) Rothschild always wanted to be a teacher. Born in Hamburg, she came to the U.S. with her family in 1939 and settled in Washington Heights, where she lives now. After graduating from George Washington High School, she attended City College and received a bachelor’s degree in education and then went on to Hunter for an master’s in education (she later got a master’s in educational guidance from CUNY). While student teaching in upper Manhattan, another teacher noticed that she was absent on a Jewish holiday and told her about a job opening at a nearby Jewish school. She was promptly hired.

In an interview with The Jewish Week in her Riverside Drive home, Rothschild, who turns 73 next month, recalls that while on leave in Israel in 1954, she visited a teacher of hers from Hamburg, who said that she always knew that young Tirzah was going to be a teacher. She remembered a day, almost 20 years earlier, when she left the classroom for few minutes and returned to find Tirzah in front of the class, giving a lesson.

"She’s the teacher’s teacher," says Rabbi Kasriel Kaufman, assistant principal of the school’s lower grades, who has worked with Rothschild for 45 years. Previously, when she was a principal and he was a teacher, she was his supervisor. "I find her very interesting, very creative," he says, acknowledging that he learned a lot of teaching skills from her.
Since we meet in the summer, it’s not possible to see Miss Rothschild (as she is known) in action in the classroom. But it’s not hard to imagine this cheerful, intelligent, feisty, almost-5-foot giant of a teacher leading her young charges to mastery of long division, book reports, penmanship and more. Spending an afternoon with Rothschild makes one think that being in fourth grade again wouldn’t be all that bad.

The school, on 186th Street and Bennett Avenue, is popularly known as Breuer’s, after the later Rabbi Dr. Joseph Breuer, who founded the school to spread the "Torah Im Derech Eretz" (Torah with modern culture) approach of Rabbi Hirsch, his grandfather, a distinguished rabbi who lead the Frankfurt Jewish community in the late 1800s. Rothschild says that one of the reasons she has stayed at the school for so long is her embrace of Rabbi Hirsch’s philosophy.

Her own approach to teaching is straightforward: "Motivate, educate, encourage and, if possible, entertain." She elaborates: "You have to care about each child. Praise as much as possible. Be fair and honest. Hold them accountable. Care more about effort than achievement."

Since she was hired in 1949, she has taught almost every grade: including pre-school, mostly English but a few Hebrew classes too. Even that first year, she was recognized as someone who handled challenges well. Early on, she was assigned to teach a particularly difficult seventh-grade class, when classes at the school were still coed. The first day, the students let her know that they prided themselves in being the school’s worst class, that previously they had gone through four teachers and they thought she’d last at most a few weeks. She thanked them, told them they were considerate for letting her know. Then she said, "You’re right. If you’re that kind of class we’re not going to get along, so either the class will have to change, or I will. Since I’m older, and it’s hard for older people to change, the class will have to change." She adds: "They did." At the end of the school year, they made her a surprise party and wrote on the blackboard, "Thank you so much for trying to teach us. You succeeded." One of her teaching colleagues at the school now was in that class.

From 1964 to 1979, she served as assistant principal and then principal of the elementary school: she was the first female principal in the school’s history. "My favorite occupation, besides talking to children individually, is training teachers. I call them my fledglings." When she wanted to give up being principal, the board was reluctant to let her go, but they agreed to have her return to teaching fourth grade. First she taught the girls’ class, and since 1988 has taught fourth-grade boys.

In the 51 years she has been at Breuer’s, the most noticeable changes are that class sizes are smaller; they used to have 30 children in a class and now the average is 16. While most students used to live within walking distance of the school, now many come by bus from other neighborhoods. She also says that modern technology has increased, and acknowledges that if she were beginning to teach now, she’d have to know something about computers.

In Rothschild’s class, index cards are a key tool. Frequently, she passes them out and asks the students to answer questions, anonymously if they prefer, about whether she’s too strict, or not strict enough, the amount of homework, and whether they’re afraid of her: and if so, why. Frequently, she has "check-ups," asking the class to rate how they’re doing in terms of conduct, interest in learning, how they get along with each other; she posts a card with the results on their monthly calendar. At the end of the year, she asks them to write, on opposite sides of a card, what was best and worst about the school year. How many cards does she go through in a year? "I couldn’t tell you. There’s a lot of feedback," she laughs. Then she adds, "When we finish talking, you’re going to be sorry you didn’t become a teacher."

She also likes to give her students "pocket questions." In making sure, for example, that they know how to spell the word "tomorrow," she states in her dramatic voice, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" and sends them home to find the reference in Shakespeare. She has a reputation as a teacher who doesn’t yell and accounts for the lack of discipline problems in her class with her combination of strictness and understanding. "I don’t try to punish. I try to make the situation less problematic for the child."
Rothschild hardly seems like one to brag about her accomplishments, but when asked, she pulls out some well-preserved cards and letters she has received from students, parents and teachers expressing gratitude and admiration. One note accompanied a box of chocolate cherries at Chanukah from a class of fifth-grade boys who used to send coded notes to each other; they told her to "look under the cherries" for an explanation of their no-longer-secret code.

On her 40th anniversary of teaching, she was honored by the Ladies Auxiliary of K’hal Adas Jeshurun, the synagogue connected to the school. Her boys performed a song they wrote, "You treat us all with so much love/An iron fist within a velvet glove." They repeated the chorus: "Teach fifth grade next year, Miss Rothschild/Then we’d have it made, Miss Rothschild/If not, let us then be fourth-graders again." In her talk accepting the honor, she thanked "the Good Lord" and her parents for instilling her with good values.

When asked about the material rewards of being a teacher, she says that teachers don’t get paid enough, and that yeshiva teachers "certainly don’t get paid enough. With my degrees, I cold have gone into other types of schools and made more money. That was not a consideration. The important thing is to know that you are doing something worthwhile." She has no doubt that she chose the right path.

Rothschild seems like she has too much energy to spend much time sitting still. When not teaching, she enjoys classical music, theater, reading and spending time in neighborhood parks. Her home is filled with examples of three major interests: Gustav Mahler, Claude Monet and hippos, with many small versions of the large animal on her shelves. She also enjoys doing volunteer work, and has recorded for the blind, tutored in a local elementary school and taught English as a second language. A few years ago, she offered to teach her Cuban-born super English, and eventually went with him when he passed his citizenship test, and then did the same for his wife. "It was one of my proudest moments," she says.

Last year, Rothschild had an unfortunate fall on the street and fractured her hip. When the Hatzoloh ambulance arrived, one medic recognized her as his father’s principal; the other said she taught his brother. They didn’t leave her side in the hospital. Not long after, Rothschild was back at work, tossing out lines of Shakespeare to her boys.