Asked what he has done for a living, Steve Goldberg, who is retiring at the end of May, will answer, “I’m just a teacher.” He even tends to understate his successes saying, “All of us have savored those flickering moments when the teaching gods smile on us, when time is suspended, when our classroom sings.”

Most of Goldberg’s colleagues and students would beg to differ with his assessment of himself, saying it’s not just the teaching gods who made his classroom sing. They say the man who taught history and philosophy at OPRF High School for almost a quarter century has been an extraordinary teacher — and friend.

“I’ve heard countless students describe him as the best teacher they’ve ever had,” said Toni Biasiello, an OPRF history teacher who has worked with Goldberg since 2004.

“My most vivid memories of Steve,” she recalled, “are as a mentor. He constantly stresses the importance of asking an interesting and motivating question to engage students in intellectual inquiry. His content expertise, coupled with his brilliant acumen, allows Steve to facilitate classroom discussions the rest of us can only hope to emulate. He is always pushing his students to think more deeply, to draw more astute connections between concepts, and to express their ideas verbally and in writing.”

Goldberg’s role as a mentor came back to bite him in a heartwarming kind of way last January during the Ethics Bowl, held on the campus of the University of Chicago. One of his teams made it to the finals and was pitted against a team from the University of Chicago Lab School, coached by one of his former students, Jessica Jacobs-Li. The Lab School won.

Following the event, Jacobs-Li said of her former teacher, “It was an absolute no-brainer that his kids made it to the last round. He’s an amazing teacher, coach, and philosopher. I think his greatest strength as a teacher and coach is that he gently pushes kids to question their own stances and truly ‘own’ their arguments. Goldberg takes time to listen to your arguments and poses questions that help you discover on your own the true philosophical argument you are making.”

“It was great fun sitting next to Jessica,” recalled Goldberg. “Although I wanted the best for my team, it occurred to me that I really couldn’t lose. Yes, we finished second, but I took satisfaction in seeing one my favorite former students savor victory.”

If Goldberg pushes his students, he pushes himself even more. Richard Mertz, a colleague, said, “When I went back to school to get my teaching certificate, my advisor said he expected me to leave the profession after a few years because he believed I would be frustrated at what he called a lack of professionalism in teaching. So as I entered OPRF 23 years ago, I did so with some trepidation.

“My classroom was next door to that of Steve Goldberg. Immediately, I understood that my advisor was completely off the mark. No matter what time I left the building, Steve would still be working on a new lesson, grading papers or talking with students. He was a model of professionalism — never finished until the job is perfect. He instilled in me a standard of professionalism that I try to live up to each day.”

Mertz added, “He taught me that to motivate a class, you have to ask a big organizing question that brings context and meaning to the discussion.”

Goldberg would be pleased to hear that, because it fits his objective for his students, which is to go beyond absorbing content to learning how to confront important questions about themselves and life. 

“I see education as an assault on provincialism,” he declared. “In my best teaching moments, I am a partner in inquiry, probing with my students questions that disturb or shake our basic beliefs and certainties.”

The 29-year educator has always challenged himself to keep improving as a teacher, even though he has a PhD in philosophy, was a Golden Apple finalist in 1991 and recipient of the National Council for Social Studies’ James Ecker Award for Global Understanding. Resisting burn-out on the one hand and apathy on the other, he has tried to grow along with his students.

“I committed myself to being ‘just a teacher,’ and I have never regretted choosing teaching as a way of life,” Goldberg said, “but I have struggled at times to make it a good life and have asked how I might bring more of myself into school, including the parts that might not seem to fit. How do we connect so fully with our work that we are invigorated and renewed?”

One way is to follow his own advice, trying to break out of his own provincialism and see the world through new cultural lenses. For example, he recalled his first of six student trips to India, which he led with Dee Millard.

“I had done some reading in preparation for the trip,” he recalled, “but found myself out of my depth once we arrived in Mumbai. The heat, sensory assault, and opacity of India’s signs and symbols, not to mention a fierce attack of ‘Delhi belly,’ all were overwhelming. And I grew frustrated that I had few answers when students peppered me with questions. Not knowing, as Donald Rumsfeld might put it, what I didn’t know, I later applied for a Fulbright Hays scholarship to study and travel in India and Nepal. … At the college level, teaching a subject in which you have no formal training is called fraud; at the high school level, it’s called ambition.”

His plans for “retirement” are headed in the same direction. 

“I want to do more reading in the philosophy of language,” he said, “and the study of the mental life of non-human animals. Perhaps the latter will lead to a curriculum for a college course. … And I want to dedicate more time to studying percussion (mainly jazz and Latin) and take over domestic chores that unfairly fell to my better half during my OPRF career.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...