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Nancy Finkelstein, 72; was consummate teacher, advocate for education funding

 Nancy Finkelstein led the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance during her career.
Nancy Finkelstein led the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance during her career.Family handout

While advocating for education and arts funding, Nancy Finkelstein often invoked as an example her hometown, where she had been both a student and a teacher.

“Look at Malden,” she said in a 1989 Globe interview, adding: “The junior high kids in that town, a blue-collar town with limited resources, got to work with computers for the first time last year.”

She compared the students’ experiences with their counterparts in higher-income towns where “kids have been working with computers for years upon years, all the way down to the early primary grades.”

Inequities will always be present when school funding is based on property taxes, she said, “but there must be some kind of guaranteed floor” because when “Malden kids go out to look for a job or college, they’re automatically behind.”

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Ms. Finkelstein, who during her career led the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the Massachusetts Cultural Alliance, and also built a teacher-development science program, died of complications from leukemia Feb. 29 in Massachusetts General Hospital. She was 72 and lived in Winthrop.

Dana Brown, principal of Malden High School and a former student in Ms. Finkelstein’s English class at what was then Lincoln Junior High School in Malden, called her “a great reader and writer who wanted her students — all her students — to do their very best.”

In recent years Ms. Finkelstein and other former teachers and staff members met each Friday for breakfast in Malden. “She spent her whole career in education, and throughout all of it she was connected to Malden,” Brown said.

During her 19-year teaching career at Lincoln Junior High, where she taught English and French, Ms. Finkelstein became deeply involved in the teachers’ union. That led to becoming president in 1984 of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which represents all public school employees in the state. When her two-year term ended, she was elected a second time.

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Ms. Finkelstein served during a particularly tumultuous period, four years after Massachusetts voters approved Proposition 2½.

“I’d seen firsthand how disastrous that was, because Malden was one of the hardest hit communities,” she told the Globe in 1989. In the wake of Proposition 2½, she added, the community had no funding to hire teachers for art, music, home economics, and industrial education.

Ms. Finkelstein met her longtime friend Beth Cook of Norfolk through the teachers union. “She was an amazing president,” Cook said of Ms. Finkelstein’s impact on the association. “She researched every possible agenda. She knew what you were going to ask before you asked it.”

In a statement the Massachusetts Teachers Association said Ms. Finkelstein fought for education reform, teacher competency testing, salary and pension issues, and more.

Ed Sullivan, who was executive director of the association during Ms. Finkelstein’s tenure, called her “a very passionate advocate and a real strategic thinker” who “motivated teachers to be the best they could be.”

“Nancy was a teacher’s teacher,” he said. “She was a very active MTA president. She spent a lot of time visiting classrooms. The three things she cared about most were teachers, students, and the economics of education.”

When she left the association, Ms. Finkelstein took the helm at the now-defunct Massachusetts Cultural Alliance, a nonprofit that represented nearly 300 groups in the arts, humanities, and sciences. The appointment was unusual since her background was in education, not arts, she told the Globe. But she was brought in for her advocacy experience on Beacon Hill.

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“What we have to impress on people is that cultural education is critical to our future — whether you’re talking town, state, or nation,” Ms. Finkelstein told the Globe.

Later, she became project manager for the Science Media Group at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge. She helped create and then run the Annenberg Channel, a round-the-clock satellite and online feed that delivered lessons to teachers in a workshop format. Ms. Finkelstein hosted some of the early workshops. The channel began with a focus on math and science and grew to include other subjects, eventually reaching teachers at 99,000 schools nationwide.

In a statement, Matthew H. Schneps, founding director of the Science Media Group, said Ms. Finkelstein “had a remarkable understanding of people. And she had a clear, and often colorful, way of conveying her thoughts.”

“ ‘If you think that’s going to work, I’ll eat this stapler,’ she’d say, holding the metal desktop gizmo up against her clenched teeth,” he said. “She was right, of course. When Nancy spoke, people listened, and without her sage, tell-it-like-it-is counsel, we would not have been able to accomplish even a small fraction of what we did.”

Ms. Finkelstein was the daughter of Edward Finkelstein and the former Ruth Singer. She graduated from Malden High School in 1960 and received a bachelor’s degree from Boston State College. She later graduated from Boston State with master’s degrees in French and English.

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“She was always so keen on public education,” said her sister Ellen Yaffe of Boston. “And I never knew anyone who didn’t say she was their best teacher ever.”

Ms. Finkelstein kept busy after she retired in 2009, family and friends said.

“Nancy was very private, but she was also incredibly generous,” Cook said. “She would always tell it like it is, but she was always kind and generous and funny. Everybody loved her.”

Family and friends gathered this month in the Malden High School library to celebrate the life and career of Ms. Finklestein, who leaves her mother, of Chelsea, and her sister.

In 1988, at the annual meeting before she stepped down from the Massachusetts Teachers Association presidency, Ms. Finkelstein described her work to the group’s members. “When people have asked me what I do, I never respond that I am a union president,” she said. “I tell them that I am a teacher. I am proud to be a teacher. I am proud to be the president of teachers. And I am very proud of all of you.”


Kathleen McKenna can be reached at kmck66@verizon.net.