“I really enjoy it. It sounds corny, but this is my whole life,” said Beth Tfiloh history teacher Paul Bolenbaugh, who is retiring at the end of this school year. “I will miss it terribly.”
Bolenbaugh said he has loved every one of his 58 years teaching — starting at Sparrows Point High School in 1960, to Pikesville High from 1965 to 2003 and since then at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He has only one regret.
“I’ve had so many experiences, I sometimes regret that I didn’t keep a journal,” he said.
Those six decades of teaching and experiences will be celebrated Monday, June 4, at 7:30 p.m. at Beth Tfiloh, where Bolenbaugh will be honored as a part of SPOTLIGHT 2018, the school’s annual scholarship gala.
“Paul Bolenbaugh has made countless people into better human beings by teaching in the best way possible: by his own personal example of decency and menschlichkeit,” BT’s Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg said. “He has enriched and uplifted all of us who are privileged to know him.”
Bolenbaugh, 79, was born in 1938 in South Bend, Indiana. His parents met in Montana, where his father was a school superintendent and his mother a fourth-grade teacher. He credits his love of learning and teaching to his parents.
“All my life I had these role models that valued education and they were wonderful parents,” he said. “They were very serious, very astute.”
Bolenbaugh said there was never any doubt about his career choice. Like his folks, he would teach. He graduated from Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, at a time when Maryland was experiencing a teacher shortage. He was hired by Baltimore County Public Schools while he was still in Indiana.
“In June of 1960, I got on the B&O train and came to Baltimore and I’ve been here ever since,” he said.
He got a little basement apartment in Dundalk and began teaching world history to 10th-graders at Sparrows Point High School when the neighborhood still stood in the shadows of Bethlehem Steel mill.
From Sparrows Point he was asked to transfer to a brand new school in Northwest Baltimore County. Bolenbaugh started at Pikesville High School in 1965. Some years he taught up to 200 students in five classes, from government to U.S. history, from psychology to philosophy.
“I loved it. I had some of the most wonderful students and wonderful experiences there,” he said. “And it’s kind of a reflection of the history we went through. When I started there, the Vietnam War era was raging, then the drugs came in, the protests came in, the streaking came in.”
And he remembers Baltimore burning during the unrest following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
From Pikesville High, Bolenbaugh joined Beth Tfiloh’s faculty in 2003. He said he cherishes not only fond memories of his students, but of the student and teacher trips to New York and especially Poland, where they visited the Warsaw ghetto, Krakow and Auschwitz.
“When I went to Auschwitz the first time, on an entire wall, beautifully painted was, in Polish and English, Santayana’s quote: ‘Those who do not remember history are condemned to relive it,’” he recalled. “I took a photograph of that and I have that on the wall in my classroom.”
“Mr. Bolenbaugh is so much more than a teacher. He is a role model and inspiration and an icon,” said BT’s director of education, Zipora Schorr. “He teaches our kids, challenges them to think, and inspires them to reach higher and higher.”
Although Bolenbaugh has enjoyed his teaching life, there were challenges, especially in recent years with the advent of the internet and social media.
“When you see what’s on the internet, and the diversity on the internet, that can be fascinating,” he said. “So, you have to change your teaching methods.”
His method for keeping students engaged is “to help them to think, process thought and realize there are multiple things to think about and consider in a civil way. That’s what I’ve tried to emphasize.”
“It seems to generally be effective. In my world history, I don’t concentrate on the facts, I concentrate on the core ideas,” he added. “For example, how the Age of Enlightenment, the scientific revolution and the Industrial Revolution changed the world forever.”
The method works, according to 2017 BT grad Bradley Melzer, who just finished his freshman year at Washington College in Chestertown.
“He really made us contemplate why we have the opinions we do and challenged us to consider alternative ways of thinking, which has affected many aspects of my life, not just my academics,” Melzer said.
Joel Monroe, BT High School’s history department chair agrees. Monroe was a colleague at Pikesville High School and Beth Tfiloh.
“I’ve never met anyone who enjoys the dynamic atmosphere of a high school class as much as Paul,” Monroe said. “While there’s no doubt that his students gain from his instruction, there is also no question that Paul’s life has been enriched by the students that he has taught. He would be the first to tell you that one doesn’t last 58 years in a classroom unless they love it.”
Bolenbaugh plans to spend his summers at a family cottage on a lake in Southern Michigan and he plans to come back to BT to read to the younger students.
“I hate to retire, but biology says you need to retire,” he said. “I very seldom, when I got up in the morning, said, ‘Oh, I have to go to school.’ Occasionally I did, I have to confess. But in general, I’ve looked forward to it. I always say I laugh every day. The students make me laugh every day.”