Legacy of late educator Margaret Katz lives on at Fieldston

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In early May, a group of friends and colleagues gathered at Ethical Culture Fieldston School to say goodbye to teacher and educator Margaret Katz. Although she died almost year earlier, her 35 years of service has left an indelible mark on the institution.

Coworkers described Katz as having an almost preternatural understanding of early childhood development. In the middle of her Fieldston career, Katz served as a learning coordinator, working with former school psychologist Linda Weiner.

“She was able to make children feel good about learning without feeling like they couldn’t be themselves,” Weiner said. “She made them comfortable with who they were first. She let them know they were accepted for themselves, and then helped them grow from there.”

Mention a student and perhaps some of the teachers would know his or her grade and general aptitude, said retired teacher Shari Katz.

“But Margaret would tell a story about any specific kid out of hundreds of kids. And the story would also capture so much about that child,” said Shari, no relation to Margaret Katz. “It showed how much respect she had for the individual’s development and growth, for kids who were different or were quirky. She could see how those quirks were endearing and how they would be used by the child as a strengths.”

David Schwartz already had 20 years of education experience when he took over as Lower School principal in 1984. But he gained a wealth of knowledge from Katz in the four years she served as his assistant principal.

“She was one of those wonderful teachers who loved children and understood that growing up is sometimes messy,” Schwartz said. “She didn’t put up with nonsense, but she gave children a sense of security and she understood that children develop self-control at different rates.”

One 6-year-old may be calm and focused while another will bounce off the walls, which, to Katz, wasn’t an inherently good or bad thing. Where some teachers would plan behavioral interventions to reach the distracted, energetic child, Katz knew to be patient, to be caring, and to wait.

“As children develop mentally, they move at different rates. She understood that,” Schwartz said. “These are things that she taught me. I had to learn from her.”

Fieldston prides itself on being a progressive school. Unlike the traditional model of textbooks, tests and memorization, progressive pedagogy stresses experiential learning. Students gain knowledge by doing. Instead of a series of lessons leading to a test, progressive learning involves completing a project in which a student may use every conceivable combination of math, science, writing, artistic and social skills at his or her disposal.

As a graduate of the Banks Street School of Education — a preeminent advocate of the progressive teaching method — Katz incorporated experiential learning into her classroom every day.

“Margaret understood what was, to her, the essence of progressive education and the essence of Fieldston Lower School,” Schwartz said. “If you can engage a child’s imagination and keep it at the center of the curriculum, it enhances their education immeasurably.”

Her understanding of progressive education bore one of Fieldston’s most beloved curricula. As a first grade teacher in the late 1970s, Katz had her students fill bird feeders outside her classroom window and observe the native species that visited.

She had them count how many birds came, and when. She even asked her students to choose their favorite kind of bird and learn everything they possibly could about it.

“Our studies involve bird walks, trips to the zoo, the museum, and nature centers, books and films, and talking with other bird watchers,” Katz wrote in her diary in 1978. “Along the way, we branch out into new areas, each question and observation leading us into new avenues of discovery. Birds’ eggs have led us to frogs’ eggs and to moth and butterfly eggs. We have looked for bird footprints and found other footprints in our sanctuary.”

The students’ questions led to hundreds more. How do birds fly? Are our arms so different from wings? Why do some birds thrive while others teeter on the brink of extinction?

Throughout her journal entries, Katz exulted in her students’ boundless curiosity. She noted how their questions led them to deep study of anatomy, ecology, statistics and engineering. Woven through her commentary was always Katz’s astute observation of the children’s behavior — what new partnerships were forged to reach a goal, who pushed herself to read at a higher grade level, what compromise quelled an argument over shared resources.

Over the years, Katz held many roles at Fieldston. She didn’t just teach the children. Sari Givner, who still teaches second grade, was a new teacher when Katz became her mentor. Before the first gaggle of students filed into her classroom, Givner covered the walls with colorful charts loaded with all manner of subjects. It was the gentlest nudge from Katz that made her look at the room again with the eyes of a child — bombarded by the distractions of the new school year — that made her reconsider the décor.

“Her method of mentoring teachers was ‘listen to the child,’” Givner said. “’Listen to the child and listen to what they’re saying.’ And ‘it will come with time.’ That was what she left me with.”

Katz’s expertise wasn’t limited to children. She knew what qualities educators required to best address the needs of their students, Upper School teacher Alice Cooper said.

“She taught a lot of teachers here and they learned a lot from her,” Cooper said. “But you can’t teach someone to be the way she was. She had such a great gift that just defies explanation.

You can’t teach someone to be a Margaret Katz. She was one of a kind.”

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