If you ask Scott Salk, an elementary school teacher at Akiba-Schechter Jewish Day School in Hyde Park, what makes him a unique or exceptional educator, he will answer honestly-and modestly. "The fact is, I'm not sure," he said. "There are so many different facets of being a good teacher and I certainly don't do all of them well."
Whatever his methods, they seem to work. Salk was recently presented the Hartman Family Foundation "Educator of the Year" award, along with $15,000, by Associated Talmud Torahs (ATT). Teachers Ruth Becker, of Joan Dachs Bais Yaakov, and Gayle Kopin, of Hillel Torah, won the $5,000 teaching award, and the three were honored at ATT's 82nd annual banquet, titled "Innovators in Education," in December at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare Hotel.
Salk, who teaches first and second grade general studies and fifth grade history, emphasizes the importance of making the classroom an active and engaging environment for children. "That's always been my main aim, the idea that school and learning shouldn't be boring," he said. "It shouldn't be painful."
But a rigid school curriculum often has a way of boxing kids in, says Salk, and can create an intimidating environment where students don't feel like smart or capable learners. He praises Akiba-Schechter for its progressive approach to teaching. "This is the philosophy of the whole school and it's certainly mine," he said. "Kids are so very different from each other and I think that when we try to standardize them or standardize the curriculum, we do them a disservice. So we meet the kids where they're at and we let them grow and develop at their own pace, so it's very individualized."
Keeping students engaged is the key to success in a classroom, for both the child and the teacher, according to Salk. "When kids are engaged in learning, great things happen," Salk said. They learn a lot, and there are few behavior problems-they are just too involved with what they're doing." Students are given choices of activity, and assignments are never simply "busy work," but rather opportunities for creative expression. "Almost all of the activities that are available to the kids I try to make interesting and meaningful," he said. "Even in terms of writing, rather than having them write meaningless sentences for practice, in all of the writing they do, they are allowed to express themselves."
Now in his seventh year at the school, Salk attributes much of his success to his eager students. "I think my students generally love learning, and they love school," he said. I think parents appreciate that their kids love coming to school … and they come home excited about things they are doing in school." As for Akiba-Shechter, Salk says he couldn't have asked for a better place to work. "This this school has been so wonderful for me," he said. "I have the freedom to be that teacher that I want to be."