As she sat in a break room inside Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville last week, Betsy Colbert laughed about an unfiltered comment from one of her kindergarten students.
“This one little boy looks at me and says, ‘Boy, you must be really old,’” she said, turning to fellow kindergarten teacher Evonne Schnitzer.
Colbert, 68, wasn’t offended by the remark. In fact, there’s nothing she would rather do for a living than be part of the lives of 5-year-olds.
“They have no problem saying what’s on their mind, and then when you ask them how old you are they’ll say, ’30?’”
Colbert has been teaching for 50 years, 24 of them at the Rockville day school. She began when she was 18, teaching kindergarten at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, and teaching Hebrew to b’nai mitzvah students at other area synagogues. Her students have included Maryland state Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-District 17) and Darren Star, a writer and producer of “Melrose Place” and “Sex and the City.”
Colbert is humble, insisting that she became a teacher after college because she “had no other skills” besides teaching and enthusiasm for kids.
“What you have as a Hebrew school teacher is your passion, and anything that you love is going to be affected in your classroom,” she said.
Schnitzer, 70, urged Colbert to give herself more credit.
“Don’t undersell yourself, Betsy,” she said.
On May 25, Colbert received one of the biggest surprises of her career when Kagan contacted her to let her old teacher know she would be dropping by her class to introduce herself to the kids.
“It was really out of the blue,” Colbert said. “I didn’t know why she chose to come here. She couldn’t campaign with the kindergartners. And when she came, she told me that I was her first Hebrew school teacher and made this [big] impression.”
Kagan, 56, said she was about 6 when Colbert taught her in the late 1960s. Because Har Shalom did not yet have a permanent building, the class met at Ritchie Park Elementary School, off of Falls Road. Kagan credits Colbert with introducing her to Jewish traditions and inspiring her to become active in her Jewish community.
“I remember her as warm, energetic and inspiring,” she said. “She drew me in and provided my first education about our people’s history and tradition.”
Kagan said she remembers Colbert teaching her students to write God’s name with a dash in place of the O — a practice the state senator still lives by.
“When she taught us about God, she taught us that you want to respect God and his almightiness,” she said. “And I to this day, I always spell it that way.”
Colbert said more recent students often come back to her classroom to see her. She even attends b’nai mitzvah, weddings and other special occasions in her students’ lives. But before last month, she hadn’t reunited with a student she taught early in her career.
“Rabbis will teach you that if you save one life you save the world … that I made an impact as a teenager that lasted? That boggles my mind,” she said.
Although Colbert doesn’t brag about her accomplishments, she is quick to point to the number of professions her students have gone into.
“One kid in New York who was my bar mitzvah student is working in a Jewish day school,” she said. “There are pilots. There’s doctors, lawyers and scientists.”
Colbert said some of the best teaching moments have come when she is able to accommodate a student with special needs, such as one bat mitzvah student who suffered from cystic fibrosis, and couldn’t safely inhale construction dust.
“Her shul was going through renovation and there was a lot of dust,” Colbert said. “I said, ‘We can’t have the service here.’ So I got the congregation to move the service to a different location.”
Naomi Yadin-Mendick, a 55-year old Sandy Spring resident who took an adult Torah reading class with Colbert at B’nai Shalom of Olney 17 years ago, said she was impressed with Colbert’s ability to teach in a way that accommodated everyone’s skill level.
“She’s really good at individualized instruction,” she said. “Everybody is coming from a different place.”
When asked what keeps her doing the same job after 50 years, Colbert responded, “It’s the kids.” Society has changed, she admitted. There is more technology, much of which is more familiar to the kids than the teachers.
And in most cases, she said, both of a child’s parents are working, leaving less time for parents to volunteer in the classroom.
“Because you have working families, and because you have the technology, papers don’t go home, and that’s hard for me to keep up with,” she said. “But the kids are still the same.”