Ramzi Farran, the celebrated Fenwick chemistry teacher who recently announced he would retire in the coming months after a 47-year career in the classroom, paused briefly to consider the magnitude of his decision.
“I’m apprehensive about what’s next because this is what I’ve done my whole life,” he said, his thick accent an echo of his native Jerusalem, underscoring the sense of purpose one would expect from a man who boasts that he has kept every high school yearbook since 1969 — the year he started teaching.
His accolades — which include a Golden Apple Award in 1998, the John Gearen Sr., Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1993, and the Outstanding Teacher Award for Educational Excellence from the Illinois State Board of Education in 1986 — clearly indicate a career that was meant to be.
Farran, however, says he discovered his calling by accident. He had come to America as a student with ambitions of going into chemical engineering. While attending Goshen College in Indiana, he held down a job working in an industrial factory. That’s where he lost his right arm in an accident, but gained plenty of perspective.
“The response that I got from people after I lost my arm changed my outlook,” he recalled during an interview last week in the high school’s library. “Before, I thought I would be working at a lab bench for the rest of my life, but I realized that working with people was quite more rewarding.”
Farran, 70, is what you might call a throwback — someone who is always and forever a step or two behind the times and, thus, uniquely connected to those old-fashioned virtues that the world, busy with progress, seems in a rush to forget.
“How do you replace him?” asked Fenwick economics teacher Peter Gallo, repeating a question put to him moments earlier. “Go ahead and replace Mark Twain or Elvis Presley.”
“When I think about Ramzi, it’s not the academic part that stands out the most,” Gallo said. “It’s the way he treats each student and makes each student feel special. He’s a great role model for new teachers. He shows that it’s not just the material you’re teaching; it’s about teaching human beings.”
“I have been accused of classical teaching,” said Farran, a sheepish grin slowly forming underneath dark, bespectacled eyes that betray his competitiveness and an unapologetic commitment to what he calls his “teaching philosophy.”
“All throughout my years of teaching, my philosophy has been that the human element is the most important thing in teaching,” said Farran, who has been at Fenwick for 32 years.
“He finds out what each student does for an activity here and makes sure he goes and sees each one of them,” said Gallo. “He attends something for each kid. That’s the first thing he does at the beginning of the year.”
“I go to over 150 activities a year and I have promised myself I will do that as long as I can,” Farran said. “I usually go to 5-6 things a week. It’s as important as teaching.”
Showing up at those events, he said, “gives you a third eye that allows you to see kids outside of the classroom as human beings.” He noted that the engagement allows him to meet and form relationships with parents, creating “a picture of the whole child” that a lot of teachers may miss.
“It pays dividends,” he said. “They respect you because you respect them. You never really have to ask them anything after that and there is never a problem of discipline in the classroom.”
Those activities are in addition to the after-school programs that Farran facilitates himself. During last Wednesday’s interview, he leaned over a sheet of paper he called his “resume” to highlight an exhaustive list of accomplishments that his competitive academic teams have earned over the years.
His Junior Engineering Technical Society teams have earned at least 10 first-place rankings and a slew of national championships. He coached a perfect-score winner in the National Science Olympiad in 1996 and 2007. He’s coached first-place winners in the American Chemical Society Scholarship Exam every year between 1989 and 2015.
“Ramzi was integral in making the academic teams here as large a part of our culture as the athletics,” said Gallo. “Our school treats those programs with the same level of appreciation as we do our athletic teams.”
John Quinn, a history teacher and Fenwick’s varsity men’s basketball coach for 28 years, said Farran, a die-hard St. Louis Cardinals fan, “has the same passion for seeing our kids at Fenwick reach the pinnacle” as he does seeing his beloved baseball team overachieve each season.
“He has a servant’s heart and he just pours his heart and soul into everything he does,” said Quinn, whose daughter is one of more than 7,000 people, by Farran’s count, who will have come through his chemistry labs by the time he retires this year — among them “thousands of doctors, engineers and high school teachers.”
Six of those former students, like Fenwick alumnae Eleanor Comiskey and Colby Burnett, now call Farran a colleague.
“He realizes the value of what we do and the inherent potential of every student you come into contact with,” said Burnett, a Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions winner and former all-state scholastic bowler who graduated from Fenwick in 2001. He now teaches world history, largely, he noted, because of Farran.
“Ramzi was really the man who inspired me to go into education,” said Comiskey, an assistant principal at the school, who graduated in 2006. “I kind of had an idea that I would, but having him as a teacher really got me interested. He can relate so well to students and really get them interested.”
Three years ago, however, Farran’s old-school philosophy seemed to clash with the current educational landscape’s emphasis on technology.
“A few years ago, I wanted to quit,” he said. “In the lab, everything is hands on. I don’t let students do simulations with the computer lab, and there was a push to have everything technological in the classroom. I wanted that human element to still be a very important part of my career.”
He said he trudged ahead, thanks to the encouragement of his two sons, who reminded him of the results of his classical approach, and with the constant support of “the parents, the administration and my colleagues who accepted me for who I am.”
“My sons said, ‘You aren’t teaching kids computers, you’re teaching them chemistry,'” recalled Farran, whose insistence on the human element is now baked into the school’s lab instruction.
“We don’t use lab books,” said Marcus McKinley, Fenwick’s science department chair. “We do a lot of hands-on work. When Ramzi started, he wanted to know how we can maximize the amount of time for instruction, so he developed these labs that are two pages long — they have an introduction and a side to collect data.”
The rest, McKinley noted, is a method of learning largely dependent on direct experimentation and a charming teaching style that the department head said he’s been trying to emulate since he first started at Fenwick in 1984 as Farran’s protégé of sorts.
“My strength is that I could simplify abstract models for kids to understand at their level and that they could apply to their lives,” Farran said. “I use a lot of stories and analogies. If they feel safe in the classroom, you’ll get a lot of things accomplished.”
Farran said he’s retiring while he still has enough energy to enjoy his sons, his grandchildren and his wife of 47 years, who is also a medical researcher whose job allowed him to pursue what he considers to have been a four-decade spiritual high.
“Being here at Fenwick has been a gift from God,” Farran said. “These kids have been a blessing and my classroom has been my heaven.”