Emigrating from Poland to Canada with his family in the years after World War II, and then to the U.S., Robin Rapaport learned English through the patient efforts of his classroom teachers - and listening to shows such as the "Green Hornet" and the "Lone Ranger" on the radio. The experience ultimately shaped his classroom style during more than 30 years as a teacher.
"It made me gravitate toward kids who are struggling," said Rapaport. "It's what all teachers do."
Rapaport, who retired as a NYSUT vice president in July, shared a vision of a single voice for New York's educators.
That vision helped lead to the historic unification in 2006 of NYSUT with the National Education Association of New York, the union Rapaport had led as president since 2003.
Honoring him on his retirement, NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi praised Rapaport as "a valuable member of our leadership team."
In three decades as a teacher, Rapaport taught in Wyandanch, Sherburne-Earlville and ultimately in Bethlehem schools in Albany County, where his English classes were legendary.
"I introduced many kids to jazz and poetry," he said with a smile.
"That combination seemed to resonate with them," Rapaport said. "Like jazz, teaching is full of surprises. One kid would find a seed of something interesting in a reading, and off we'd go."
His experiences in Vietnam as an artillery forward observer with the 101st Airborne Division helped sharpen his focus on political action as a key activity for education unionists.
"There are people making decisions about our lives, and we can't let them do that in a vacuum," he said. "How do we keep them accountable?"
He described NYSUT as "masterful" in pulling together members for political action. "Our younger members need to continue that tradition for their interests," he said.
A statewide union officer since 1997, Rapaport said unification of the two statewide unions fostered new cooperation between NYSUT's two national affiliates, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
As he told delegates at the NYSUT's Representative Assembly in April, the relationship makes "each organization more effective, influential and respected."
Fittingly, Rapaport's service, commitment and vision were honored during NYSUT's political endorsement conference in August.
- Bernie Mulligan