Faculty Friday: Interview with Mr. Pinnolis

By: Joseph Hirsh '22 (Originally published in the Shevuon Hatichon, January 31st, 2020)

Q: When did you become interested in teaching? Why?
Well, I have been teaching for a very long time. I think my first year was at the University of California-Berkeley 37 years ago, so at a college level first. I taught at Berkeley, then Virginia Commonwealth [University], and then the University of Florida, and then at a high school in New York and other types of informal places: At a JCC in N.Y., at Camp Ramah... I love teaching. I have always loved teaching. There is something very satisfying about the process of watching and helping students expand their understanding of the world around them, expand their understanding of themselves, and that’s amazing work and holy work, and I’m happy to be a part of it.

Q: What schools did you attend?
I went to R.J. Rennolds High School, which was named for the Tobacco Magnate because I grew up inNorth Carolina, and that was the big industry in my town. I went to Harvard University for my undergraduate, and I went to graduate school, and I did a doctoral program at UC Berkeley for a number of years in philosophy. After teaching at a couple of universities, I decided to go into teaching high school, in particular, Jewish education, so I then got a master’s in Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York.
Q: What is something that none of your students and/or colleagues know about you?
There is very little that some colleagues in the school don’t know because they had 15 years to get to know me. I don’t think many students, if any, know I was an avid swimmer when I was younger. I just loved swimming. I felt more comfortable in the water then I do on land. I haven't done as much of it as I would like in the past few years, but I'm hoping to get back into the pool. When I was at UC Berkeley, every semester I was in graduate school I took a swimming class from a coach who had been the US national coach in water polo. Berkeley had a lot of great swimmers and great water polo players and Olympians, and I had a chance to learn swimming from a number of Olympians when I was younger.
Q: How long have you taught at Gann?
Well, 15 years. That goes back to when Rabbi Lehmann was the headmaster. He was the founding head of the school, and I was here for the entire duration of Rabbi [Marc] Baker’s tenure as head of school and... with Dr. Jerry Katz for a year and now with Dr. [Dalia] Hochman.
Q: What’s your favorite part of teaching?
My favorite part is when I bring a question, or a piece of text, or a topic to students, and an entire class goes by and I don’t say anything. I just get to watch them analyze it and argue about it and learn about it, and those are the classes for me that are most fun; I get to just watch students learn. So that is my favorite part of teaching.
Q: Can you briefly describe your job?
Teaching is one part of it. And in the last few years, I have gotten to teach philosophy which is wonderful. My job for about ten years, nine years now, has been trying to help teachers around the school teach as well as they possibly can so that the learning that happens in the classrooms is as strong as possible. I do that in lots of different ways: I observe classes and typically what I do then is ask questions after I observe a class, questions that I think will open up thinking and that teachers will find useful. I work most directly with all the department chairs; those are the people I directly supervise. My work with them is primarily to help them, support them, be [a] good teacher developer. Their primary job is actually, within their department, is to try to make the classes as good as possible and learning as strong as possible. They do that by working directly with teachers to help them improve their teaching practice a little bit at a time so that over time it gets a lot better. That’s the primary work that I do.
Q: How did you find Gann?
I had an advantage: I was living in New York when Gann was founded, but I knew people in the Boston area really well, including my siblings who knew about Gann, and also people in the Jewish Educational world who new about Danny Lehmann, the founder, and the project of forming Gann. So I was watching it from afar as it was forming, just kind of keeping an eye on it, and I actually had the idea of coming here its first year. So I... sent a note to Danny Lehmann asking whether he might have a need for a philosopher, and what I heard back was the suggestion from him that I go and take some graduate courses in education or maybe in Judaics and have a subject area and skillset that were more appropriate for high school. So I took his advice, went to New York, and got a degree there at JTS. I focused on Tanach and got a master’s in education and I taught there a number of years at a high school in New York. I was always keeping one eye on the school and when there [would be] an opening. I applied and got the job. I was so impressed with the students here when I walked in. That was the thing that made me want to be here. First, they were so happy. I think if you haven't visited lots of high schools, you don’t appreciate how unusual it is to walk into a building and just see lots of happy teenagers. The atmosphere here is strikingly different. And that was the first thing I noticed. And then, I was a stranger in the building, and so many students would just come up to me and offer help... and I just thought, what a lovely culture—I want to be part of this.
Q: You have taught Jewish studies and philosophy. Have you noticed any intersection between those two fields?
For a while, I actually taught in the Tanach department a Jewish thought class, so it was Jewish philosophy that occasionally touched on Tanach, but really not so much. Some of that content has been subsumed in other courses now in the Jewish Studies department. That was a place where I was doing Jewish studies and philosophy all at the same time.
Q: How has Gann changed since you started teaching here?
Well, there are a lot of different people in the building. Students are new and there are not that many faculty left from 15 years back. But I actually think that in the most important ways it really hasn’t changed that much. It is still a place where there is a strong sense of community, where people value each other; there is a kind of kindness in most of the interaction which I think is characteristic of the culture. From the beginning, there has been an emphasis on a strong educational experience and being very intentional and reflective about what we do and why we do it. That has been the same since I got here. I think there is a sense of experimentation still... and that is also not changed much. The idea of a very thoughtful approach to Israel education... has stayed the same. In some ways, it looks very different and in other ways, and maybe the most important ways, Gann has had a very consistent culture.
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