By Richard FERRER
Who was your most inspiring teacher? The one, above all others, who broadened your horizons and set your imagination free.
Mine was the aptly named Mr Leader. Back in 1981 at the Michael Sobell Sinai School in north London, he coaxed a timid 10-year-old out of his shell, sparked his interest in English and made him captain of the cricket team.
For reasons that baffle me still, he never wavered in his unshakable belief in my ability to spell long words and slog-sweep over square leg.
Along with my parents, Mr Leader became the dominant influence in my life. I wanted to make him proud by mastering the four Rs (reading, writing, arithmetic and run scoring).
Today, part of me still tries to reward his faith.
His lifelong impact on me came to mind last week after I met an woman who’s been a leader to thousands of children for more than 10 years.
Kiryat Malachi, one of Israel’s most deprived towns, faces a myriad of social, economic and security challenges. It’s home to immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union and struggles with mass unemployment and an average monthly wage below £800.
Many parents cannot read or write and struggle to put a hot meal on the table.
Its political scandals would make Silvio Berlusconi blush. Among the public servants who’ve dragged the town’s name through the mud are former mayor turned President Moshe Katsav, currently serving seven years for rape and Motti Malka, who quit as mayor this year after his conviction for sexual harassment and breach of trust.
And just 20 miles north of the Gaza Strip, Kiryat Malachi is also within range of Hamas rockets. Last November, three residents were killed by terrorists using their homes for target practice.
Unsurprisingly, the local education system has buckled under the strain.
Ten years ago, a 36-year-old headteacher called Ayala Hagag arrived in town, tasked with managing the demise of Netzach Yisrael, a failing primary school facing imminent closure due to poor grades, morale, discipline and attendance.
But rather than administering the last rites, Ayala launched an unparalleled academic revolution that, a decade on, has transformed the lives of thousands of families.
A visit to the home of a disruptive eight-year-old pupil called Itzik set the tone for this transformation. Ayala was aghast at the child’s living conditions. His filthy clothes and mattress and an empty fridge containing half a tomato and a bottle of wine convinced her she had to fill Itzik’s stomach before she could hope to fill his mind.
Thanks to the Israeli charity Meir Panim, Ayala supplied hot lunches and suppers for her pupils and sent them home with extra meals to feed their families.
Next she launched an after-school youth club, vocational classes for mums and dads and a ‘mitzvah store’ – an Aladdin’s cave of goodies, many donated by Meir Panim, where pupils can purchase clothes and school supplies using tokens awarded for good results and behaviour.
Meir Panim operates a further three after-school clubs for 280 children in other campuses.
From taking over a school of 168 pupils destined for the scrap heap, this mum of four, who as a child dreamed of conducting an orchestra, now conducts a range of unique and innovative programmes that give fresh hope to around 500 pupils – and their parents.
Unlike Mr Leader, Ayala is on first-name terms with her students. They are drawn to her like bees to honey.
The Ministry of Education has nicknamed her the “Phantom Plane” for reaching high altitudes at lightning speed. The analogy is not lost on anyone who meets her.
Today, 10 years after facing imminent closure, Netzach Yisrael sets the standard for other Israeli schools to follow and shows that, when it comes to educating and inspiring the next generation, a solid and secure foundation reaps life-changing rewards.
Or in the words of the sign hanging on the staff room wall: “To see the good in your students, just keep trying.”
For more information see www.meirpanim.org.uk