Yonkers teacher Mitchell Polay, a longtime sixth-grade teacher at Paideia School 15, was honored this week by the New York State Board of Regents for his outstanding work educating students — and fellow teachers — about the Holocaust and human rights.
“You understand the power of history and what effect it can have on your students,” said State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, as she presented him with the 2017 Louis E. Yavner Teaching Award on Tuesday. “These lessons are about more than unspeakable crimes. They also illustrate the importance of standing up and speaking out against injustice and intolerance.”
In his more than two decades as an educator, Polay has made history meaningful to his students, particularly through his lessons about the Holocaust. Regent Judith Johnson read a touching letter from a 13-year-old former student who said Polay’s class had deeply inspired her and made the idea of human rights “central to my life.”
In addition, Johnson noted Polay had developed a credit-bearing course for teachers called “History of the Holocaust and the Lessons We Can Learn From it,” which has been offered to hundreds of colleagues through the Richard Gazzola Teacher Center of Yonkers.
Polay, a recent graduate of the NYSUT Leadership Institute, said he was “thrilled to be recognized for something I’m passionate about.”
He told the Regents that human rights education is crucial throughout the curriculum, starting as early as kindergarten, so that children learn the values of respect, equality and justice.
He read a quote from Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the Jordanian high commissioner for human rights at the United Nations: “From the earliest age, human rights education should be infused throughout the program of every school — in curricula and textbooks, policies, the training of teaching personnel, pedagogical methods and the overall learning environment ... [Children] can be guided by human rights education to make informed choices in life, to approach situations with critical and independent thought, and to empathize with other points of view.”
“I really couldn’t have said that any better myself,” Polay said. “Please encourage human rights education. Please help us inspire our students to be upstanders. And please challenge us to treat everyone with dignity, respect and kindness.”