By Noah Bergam (V)
After 41 years at Pingry, beloved Upper School German teacher and former Head of the World Languages Department Norman LaValette is retiring this year. Mr. LaValette (often referred to by students as “Herr LaV” or simply “LaV”) is known for his unorthodox but effective teaching methods, which, as his students can attest to, involve countless mantras, exquisite vocabulary, speed dialogue, and sometimes even jumping on tables.
LaValette is a born teacher, but the way he ended up choosing German and Pingry requires a bit of background.
In terms of the former, the story starts back when he was in 7th grade, when he had the choice at his public school to learn either Latin or German. He liked both languages; Latin piqued his interest in toy soldier collection, while German had interesting connections with his native Dutch. He chose Latin, only to receive his schedule and find it had German on it. Apparently there were not enough signups to fill up a Latin class. “The rest is history;” he studied German through high school, college, and grad school.
When LaVallette entered the teaching world, Pingry was not his debut job. After four years teaching at three separate high schools, LaValette stumbled upon Pingry by a recommendation from a friend. After interviewing for the job, LaV recalled he was “duly allured,” taken aback by “the reverence for scholarship, for ideas” among both students and teachers. Once again, the rest is history.
LaV taught German during a time when the Berlin Wall was thought to be indestructible. He recalled taking students to the country on exchange trips in the late 80s and early 90s––on one trip in specific, his students traded US dollars for medals and belts from Russian soldiers in East Berlin. He recalled thinking: “This is wild.”
Herr LaValette has run Harkness discussions in German since the 1980s, back before it was cool for even high school English classes. He recalled one specific discussion that devolved into fisticuffs––a discussion where he jumped in and ultimately took an accidental punch to the jaw from one of his students. If anything, it was a testament to his sheer dedication to his students, and, of course, the relevance of his class discussions: as LaV put it, “German can push people’s buttons!”
According to German teacher Karsten Niehues, “[LaV] is a living legend. Over the years, more than 1,000 teachers have participated in his workshops and learned from his wisdom. While LaV has a student-centered approach to teaching, he also believes in the value of teachers with strong personalities.” Indeed, LaV’s pedagogy has made huge impacts on the teachers around him. Fellow German teacher Igor Jasinski stated, “Watching [LaV] teach has helped me become a better teacher, as it makes me want to bring to my classes some of that intensity and sense of urgency that is the hallmark of Norm’s teaching style.” Colleague and former German teacher Ann Dickerson said, “He is an innovative, energetic, passionate educator who has never become complacent or cynical about teaching, and comes to school every day as eager to grow and to learn as if he were just starting out.”
This is evident in his own words. When asked what teaching has taught him, LaV responded, “If you’re an ambitious person, if you start a year with a goal, inexorably what’s going to happen, especially if you’re a teacher, is you aren’t going to reach all of them. You’re not ever as good as you think you are. But here’s the cool thing about teaching: most teachers I know, they will get back on the horse, and set up new goals, new ambitions, strive to do what they couldn’t do the year before.”
The first mantra LaV taught me back in sixth grade German was Aller Anfang ist schwer: every beginning is difficult. So too is every ending, especially to a career this amazing. Herr LaV, you will be greatly missed.