What a True Teacher Can Be
Tim Betzala, Dean of Faculty
I’ll never forget the first day of my sophomore year of high school because it started me on the path to becoming a teacher.
St. Joe’s Prep was far from home in the middle of Philadelphia. It was a prep school – way above and beyond what most kids in my neighborhood would even consider. Attending “The Prep” had been a total leap of faith decision on my part. My parents didn’t have the means to send me to a school like The Prep, but they offered to make the necessary sacrifices if I wanted to push myself academically. They knew that it provided a great foundation for life.
I remember freshman year being completely freaked out –– I was definitely a little fish in a very big pond. I didn’t know anyone and I was trying to figure out who I was and how I fit in. But that all changed in 10th grade when I stepped into Frank Raffa’s Spanish class.
Señor Raffa was constantly in motion and his classroom was covered with images from around the Spanish-speaking world - the space provided the perfect amount of stimulation my teenage brain needed. It was a cacophony of Spanish, and he drew us in. He was definitely a linguist, but more than anything he was a teacher at heart.
He got us up out of our seats, moving around and talking to each other. He was this roly-poly, little guy who had zero issue making fun of himself and pointing out his own foibles. We laughed at and with him all the time. Silliness was how he caught our attention –– he carried around a yardstick that he brandished like a sword, and he pretended to stab us or himself if we said something incorrectly. It was all part of the playful way he taught. His class was rigorous, but he made us fall in love with the language because he made it fun.
More importantly, Señor Raffa was a teacher outside the classroom. Every day after school he would grade tests in the cafeteria and talk with students. He was always there to listen no matter what. He let every student know that he cared about them. His true goal as a teacher was helping to usher kids through the craziness of adolescence by caring about who we were as people.
Señor Raffa created an environment that was about taking risks, having fun and putting yourself out there. We built long-lasting, deep friendships in that class because we were able to be vulnerable with one another, and as I learned, vulnerability always leads to authentic connection. My experience in his class translated into my whole experience at The Prep. It was one of the greatest times of my life.
After taking his class, I knew not only that I wanted to become a Spanish teacher but I knew how I wanted to teach it.
After college, I returned to The Prep for a teaching fellowship, and Frank was my mentor for the full year. We’ve kept in touch and maintained a friendship all these years. I still call him and ask him for advice.
If I hadn’t been assigned to Frank’s Spanish class those many years ago, I’m not sure I would be a teacher, and I definitely wouldn’t be the teacher I am today. That experience was a perfect combination of subject matter I loved and the person who made it all crystallize and come together in a fun and engaging way. That moment in my sophomore year of high school was when I realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
There are few teachers like Frank Raffa, as hard as we may try. Yet many educators attribute their career choice to a teacher who once inspired them. Each day we aspire to be the best we can and appreciate those who first showed us what a true teacher can be.