When longtime La Jolla High School teachers Rachel and Howard Tenenbaum were in college — Rachel, a freshman, and Howard, a junior — they attended a orientation event for new students eager to make friends.
“We were doing an icebreaker activity where you were supposed to say your name and a food that starts with the same first letter as your first name. So I said, ‘My name is Rachel and I like raspberries’ ... or something like that,” Rachel Tenenbaum said.
Howard Tenenbaum, always one to joke and never one to follow instructions, said “My name is Howard and I like Rachel.”
The two developed a friendship and kept in touch. “He was in a notoriously boring class that I knew I would be in later, so I asked for his notes,” she said.
“He gave me the notes, but I saw trail-offs from when he would fall asleep ... but he was adamant that he get the notes back.” When Rachel contacted Howard to give him back the notes, he took advantage of the opportunity and asked her out on a date. Within a year, they were married and continuing their studies at Cal Poly Pomona.
Flash forward 32 years, the twosome are still together happily and teaching at La Jolla High School, with Rachel teaching biology since 2002 and Howard teaching environmental science and chemistry since 2007.
The pair worked for several years in independent research labs in San Diego after Rachel graduated from UC San Diego, where she transferred after Howard graduated from Cal Poly.
While Howard was working for a bio- pesticide company, he found himself longing to play all day with their two young sons, Joe and Ari.
“I’d be helping (with homework and projects) when my kids were in school and coaching soccer, and I realized those moments were the highlights of my week,” he said. “So I got out of research and got into teaching because kids are so fun to be around.”
Rachel decided to follow, and they went through a teaching program at UCSD. Between the two of them, they taught at Marston Middle, Clairemont High, Scripps Ranch High, Lewis Middle and University City High schools before transferring to La Jolla High School.
But there was a two-year period in between when the Tenenbaum family went overseas, to teach in Portugal.
“We figured we were never going to go on a European vacation because we didn’t have the financial means, so we thought we could get jobs teaching there and then travel around,” she said. They found a recruitment agency pairing teachers who wanted to work overseas with schools in need. It was 1996 and San Diego teachers were going on strike. “We decided it was time to go,” Howard
said. They interviewed with a school that needed two science teachers and got the jobs.
“We packed up the car and sold all our worldly belongings and went to teach in Portugal,” Rachel said. Making good on their vacation promises, Howard said the family visited France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Morocco and more, and he was grateful his children were then at “the perfect age.”
Ari spent his fifth- and sixth-grade years, and Joe his eighth- and ninth, in a Portuguese school, which Rachel said likely brought them closer together. “For the first few months, they were each other’s only social network,” she said. “So it was a really good experience for them. Our older son (Joe) lived in Israel when he was going through medical school and some of that willingness came from living abroad.”
Upon the Tenenbaums’ return, they resumed teaching science in San Diego schools. In 2002, they moved to La Jolla to be near Rachel’s new employer, and Howard said there was a noticeable benefit to living near where they work.
“You get to see your students in a casual setting and you never really lose sight of the fact that all these kids are all engaged in life and they work hard. And the parents of our students — like when our kids were younger — are finding their way through parenting adolescents and they are wonderful people,” he said.
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges.
“I’ve said many times, I am the most motivated person in the room,” Rachel said of heading a classroom. “You really have to enjoy working with students and you have to be willing to push them in a positive way, and you really need to ... what’s the word I’m looking for?”
“Cultivate?” Howard suggested.
“Cultivate, that’s it. You need to cultivate their interest and you can’t do the same thing all the time. Even though I’ve been teaching for 20 years, every year is different. I add new stuff that might work and take stuff out that doesn’t,” she said.
When it works, the students appreciate it.
Ava Vellizzi, a junior who has had both Tenenbaums as teachers, said one thing that works is bringing real-world relevancy to their lessons. “We live in such a nice part of the world with so many resources around us, and they take advantage of that,” she said. “Mrs. Tenenbaum took us to the Salk Institute to see how we can apply what we are learning to our future. Mr. Tenenbaum took us down to the beach to physically see what we are learning about.”
Senior Michael Penny agreed. “They teach us about the impact that biology and environmental science has around the world. Mr. T has us read news articles to show us why what we are learning is important and relates to the outside world,” he said, adding that Rachel got him an internship at a cancer research lab he called “life changing.”
Having an understanding of what might work comes easy to the Tenenbaums, mostly because they have each other to bounce ideas around. Rachel and Howard say that’s one reason they take walks together every day.
“Walking provides a certain tranquility, and our bodies are built to walk,” Howard said. “Walking allows a person to talk and reflect. You aren’t looking at your phones and you can have a clear head.”
Walking and division of labor, he points out, are the keys to their marital success.
“She loves to shop, and I hate shopping, so she buys my clothes. She makes my lunch and I make her coffee in the morning. We’ve worked hard in life, but a lot of this is sheer luck,” he added, looking happily at his bride. “We’ve been so lucky.”