Thanks for Teaching Me Out of My Comfort Zone

Last year, the week after Teacher Appreciation Week, Moe Liss, the teacher who had the greatest influence on my life of any teacher, was being honored near Paterson, New Jersey, my home town. I decided that no matter how many late night buses I had to take to get there and back, I had to attend — it was worth it to honor a great teacher. In celebration of this year’s Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to share my feelings about honoring the teacher who influenced me the most.    

The author in his office at the U.S. Department of Education. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

The author in his office at the U.S. Department of Education. (Photo credit: U.S. Department of Education)

It was great to be back in my home territory of Northern New Jersey with several hundred people of various ages that I recognized from my childhood. They were there to celebrate the contributions of Moe Liss, my high school teacher in economics, who went on to support many community causes and train many teachers at a local teacher’s college — a role he still plays in his youthful eighties.

My memories of Mr. Liss (I still cannot call him Moe) were not all pleasant. In his class, he challenged his students to think and learn and use the full range of their abilities. It was not always a happy or comfortable experience, but he always made me learn, and I always was improved by the experience, even though I may have not realized it then. He pushed me and other students way out of our comfort zones and taught me to be inquisitive and to think critically — skills that drive my thinking today and every day in my work at the Department. What he taught me then still serves me very well today — to be a lifelong learner and to use that learning to solve problems. He still drives me to think creatively, solve problems, and continually strive to improve.This seemed worthy of thanks many years later. I had mentioned Moe Liss and this celebration to then-Secretary Arne Duncan and I was able to bring with me to New Jersey that day a congratulatory letter from the Secretary thanking Mr. Liss for his years of service as a dedicated teacher. (who, it should be noted, continues to be involved in education today as the head of a teacher training program at a local university.)

I had the opportunity to read Secretary Duncan’s letter and personally thank Moe Liss at the celebration for his contributions to my life and many others then and now.  While critical thinking skills are now a part of many challenging college- and career-ready sets of state standards, their importance then was not as fully recognized, and they inspired me then as they do now. Questioning and inquiring and seeking to understand the others’ views is what Moe Liss emphasized every day. He was there with me in many decisions, pushing me to go beyond what felt good, to question and do good. He applauded me when I made a good decision and hissed and booed me when I made a bad decision. I feel his thanks every day for my work to help improve education, and now it is my opportunity to thank him.

As I thanked Moe Liss, he seemed truly surprised and appreciative.  After reading the letter, I added my own thanks. Many of the teachers that Mr. Liss trained were in the audience, along with local teachers from my hometown. They all told me how they were dedicated to improving education in Paterson and the surrounding areas and how challenging their work can sometimes be. Some told me that they had been ready to quit. But now hearing my thanks to Moe Liss, they felt even more inspired to try again to achieve greater success with their teaching.

Although Teacher Appreciation Week had just ended, I told the gathering that every day should be a time to celebrate and thank a great teacher.

My parents taught me a lot and supported my inquisitiveness and education, but they were, relatively speaking, easier graders. Moe Liss was not. He had a toughness about him — and he made you earn your grades and challenged you in every answer you gave in class. He cared to make you better — and he did make me better. I benefit from his gifts to me each day and he keeps driving me to work hard, because there are still more problems to solve and more students to serve.

I thanked Moe Liss that night, but I cannot thank him enough for an important job very well done.

Phil Rosenfelt is Deputy General Counsel for Program Service at the U.S. Department of Education.


  1. Such a wonderful tribute and recognition of someone who clearly made an impact on you and so many others. That you made it a point to be there was very moving. So glad you shared this experience with us.

  2. That was really lovely Phil. I was there that night too, and was very impressed with your credentials !

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