The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

The Student Newspaper of Poly Prep Country Day School

The Polygon

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Michal Hershkovitz: Learning for Life


It was August of 1969 in Tel Aviv, Israel, when seven-year-old Michal Hershkovitz said goodbye to the world she knew. Her parents threw a goodbye party the evening before they moved to the United States for her father’s job. However, this party was noticeably different. There was no food and the house was empty, except for the few mattresses they would sleep on that night. As Hershkovitz went to sleep, she listened to American music, trying to sing along and make sense of these strange foreign sounds, ones that she would soon be surrounded by.

When Assistant Head of School, Academics at Poly Prep Country Day School, Michal Hershkovitz, speaks, others listen. She exudes passion and drive, telling her life story with a biographer’s skill and poise. Hershkovitz is an immigrant from Israel whose father’s work brought her family of four to the United States when she was young. With the exception of her father, none of them knew a word of English. However, despite being behind her classmates’ linguistic abilities when she first arrived, Hershkovitz was a natural learner and it was not long before she began to excel in school.

Hershkovitz grew up with her father, mother, older brother, and baby sister. Her father was working for the Israeli airline El-Al when the company transferred him to the United States. For their first few years in the US, their family lived in New York, where Hershkovitz attended a Jewish day school. At this school, she spent half her day still immersed in Hebrew courses and the other half in the standard American courses taught in English. “The Hebrew speaking part of the day was comforting and familiar,” said Hershkovitz. “I did not have to make any profound changes in the way I understood material.” 

One of Hershkovitz’s earliest memories of school in the US is a conversation between her parents and second-grade teacher. Although she did not speak a word of English yet, she understood that her parents wanted to know whether she would need additional attention and learning support. The teacher was adamantly opposed to giving her extra guidance or providing her with any special dispensation. Hershkovitz remembered feeling “confused and dislocated,” sitting in class struggling to communicate and connect with other students. However, after three months, she “really started to speak English and…never stopped.” Hershkovitz credits her early teachers in their knowledge of how language works. She said, “I think [my teacher] understood something about language acquisition that maybe my parents didn’t.” In fact, Elisabeth Mansfield, Poly Prep’s world language department chair, agrees that true immersion is the most effective way to learn a new language. She said, “[Hershkovitz] didn’t have to have direct English instruction because she was immersed in the language 24/7. She had no choice but to learn it.” 

In contrast to Hershkovitz’s immersion as a kid, her father went to work every day and took an English course that she compared to an older version of Duolingo. This was a British course, which meant that while her father learned the language, he often used British phrases that were unfamiliar to Americans. For this reason, Hershkovitz became what she proudly called her “family’s cultural ambassador to the United States.” This was her first “teaching role” in which she translated her fathers British-English to American-English.

Hershkovitz acknowledged how her immigrant experience has given her a dual identity. She said, full of gratitude, “Moving to a new country is a gift because it allows you to see yourself and the society, both the society you came from and the society that you now live in, more clearly.” Her unique perspective has enhanced her journey as a student and educator, giving her a broader perspective on the world.

Hershkovitz went to a public high school and then attended the University of Michigan, where she got her bachelor’s degree in political science. After her undergraduate study, although she was accepted to law school, she ended up at Yale for her Masters of International Relations. From there, she attended a doctoral program at Columbia, specializing in international relations. During her time at Columbia, she also took on many adjunct teaching jobs to make money. When it came to writing her dissertation, one year turned into five, just to complete her first two chapters. She reflected on these years and said, “I wanted to be part of an academic community. I loved the conversations, the talks and Q&A, and helping my friends with their dissertations. I just wasn’t committed to my own.” She appreciated the educational discussions and exchange of ideas and did not like working alone.

  After all these years of becoming an expert student, this was the moment Hershkovitz realized that what she enjoyed most was teaching. “I obviously wanted to be a teacher,” said Hershkovitz. “And after too many years of not knowing who I was, I realized, not least because of conversations with my husband and very close friends who looked at me and said, ‘You realize you want to be a teacher.’” 

One teacher that Hershkovitz idolized was Mrs. Levy. Hershkovitz lit up as she recalled what was most compelling about her former teacher, describing her as “very tough…[I] loved how much she challenged and respected [her students].” Hershkovitz also shared that she often uses Mrs. Levy as a model in her own teaching and parenting. Mrs. Levy’s role as both a parental and educational figure made a large contribution to Hershkovitz’s personal growth. In fact, an article in the National Library of Medicine states that “The highest priority environments are families and schools, since they influence child and adolescent development.” 

Although Hershkovitz had an excellent education, she did not have the credentials to work in a public school, limiting job opportunities. After Columbia, she took a job at Hunter College High School as a leave replacement. This meant that it was a temporary job and she would need to find a more permanent position. She then took a job at Calhoun as a teacher while her kids attended Poly Prep Country Day School. 

Her family loved the Poly community so much that Hershkovitz herself even joined as the history department chair. In 2019, Poly was having a nationwide search for a new assistant head of school, academics. Hershkovitz seized this opportunity, applied for the role, and got the job. 

“Michal believes in the power of education to transform students’ lives and the world, and draws inspiration from her own immigrant experience to exhort students to travel as far as possible in their intellectual imaginations and embrace the challenge of discovery wherever it is found,” according to the Poly Prep directory. 

Hershkovitz has been committed to her role as a Poly Prep administrator ever since. Being an immigrant and having a dual identity has allowed her to have an expansive worldview, offering a different perspective that her students and colleagues can learn from. While it took her a long time to discover that teaching was her passion, school has always been a positive force in her life. Hershkovitz said, “I’ve always been a good student because I love school…To me, school has always been a joyful place,…which is why I am still in it at this age.”

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