Linda Pollard, Endowment Assistant/Staff Writer, Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation
The old adage says that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Liat Shyken, the 2016 Sokolof Outstanding Jewish Teacher Award recipient, must feel like she’s never worked. It is apparent to those who know Liat that she loves what she does. One parent wrote in her recommendation for Liat, “She truly cares for those she teaches. We have witnessed her passion for children. Putting into words what she means to us is impossible. We will be forever grateful to her.”
As a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), Liat’s first teaching job in the public arena was for the Ralston Public Schools. She worked there for two years before joining Westside Schools, where she has worked for the past eight years. Prior to moving to Omaha with her husband, Gary, Liat was an SLP at the Kennedy Krieger Institute of John Hopkins in Baltimore, where she specialized in students with a dual diagnosis of autism and a behavior disorder.
Liat moved with her family to the US from Johannesburg, South Africa, when she was 12, received her B.S.Ed. in Communication Sciences from the University of Georgia and her Master’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
When asked why she chose her specific career, Liat responded that she wanted a career somewhat medically based. Since Liat’s strengths are working with people, teaching, psychology and counseling, she felt an SLP profession met those requirements. With her degree, Liat has the option to work in various settings and with people of all ages. Ask anyone at Westside who knows Liat and they will agree that She is just where she should be. One colleague stated, “Liat displays a high level of expertise in her field, is an outstanding advocate for students with special needs and their families, and her students make outstanding growth under her instruction and guidance. She establishes very positive relationships with her students and has mastered the fine balance of being firm, compassionate and approaching her work with a sense of humor.”
Besides her job duties, Liat finds the time to serve on the Westside Community Schools safety committee, as well as being the Special Education representative on a committee to revise student scheduling at Westside High School. Liat and a colleague started the Circle of Friends program at Westside by co-writing a grant and receiving financial support for the program from the Autism Action Partnership. This program is unique in that both students with disabilities and non-disabled peers interact and build friendships. Meeting weekly, the group engages in social activities like games, art, movies and bowling. Liat said, “The main goal is to link the students and give those who struggle with social skills an opportunity to engage in meaningful social experiences.”
During Liat’s time away from school, when she isn’t attending after-school activities or serving on school and synagogue committees, she loves spending time with her family. The Shykens are always on the go. They love to camp, travel and explore state and local parks, trying new activities whenever the opportunity presents itself. Liat’s family consists of husband Gary, children Shmuel, Aviva, Batsheva, Eliezer, Aliza and Yehuda, ranging in age from 12 to three years of age.
Beyond school and family obligations, Liat finds the time to serve on various committees at Beth Israel Synagogue. She has been on the Beth Israel board for the last two years and has served as the Executive Vice-President. She has also served on the CDC board. Liat and her family participate in many Jewish communal events throughout the year.
Reading through the many recommendations received on Liat’s behalf, it is apparent the she is truly worthy of the Sokolof Outstanding Jewish Teacher Award and that she is zealous about her profession. As one parent wrote, “Her knowledge of the mechanics of speaking is extensive, which, combined with her love of students, makes Liat exceptional. The challenges in the Special Education rooms are great, and Liat goes above and beyond with a willing heart.”
The passion that drives Liat can be summed up in her own words, “I enjoy a challenge. I love what I do and am passionate. I always look for the inner spark in each student. Each has something that is special, unique and is a strength. Every student has potential and it is my job to harness their skills to help make him or her successful. I owe my success to hard work — not just on my part, but on the part of my students, parents, co-teachers and administration.” Liat’s passion for her students is noticed and appreciated by all who have had the good fortune to know her.
One has to wonder where Liat finds the time to accomplish so much, which brings to mind another old adage, “If you want something done right, ask a busy person.”