“Adorn Yourself”: Mindful Model Learners

Beyond teaching one’s subject matter in a classroom, a teacher in a Jewish day school is a model learner for students and other teachers, particularly in terms of personal development and personal investment in the learning community. But why should we be model learners, and what are the additional skill sets we must model for our students both as teachers and learners ourselves?

“Adorn yourself first, then adorn others” (Sanhedrin 19a). This insight is articulated by the Talmud in relationship to the idea that in order for one to make sound judgment, he must be first be in a position to be judged. While most of us would not associate being judged with being adorned, “adornment” here is about clarity regarding who we are and what we are striving to become. To “adorn” ourselves, then, is to reflect upon and evaluate ourselves so that we are able to identify our own areas for personal development and formulate an understanding of our personal evolution.

In doing so, we enable ourselves to serve as model learners for others on the same journey. Leaving the notion of judgment aside, teachers of Jewish day schools find themselves in unique roles as mentors, supporters, and persons who integrate academic, cultural and moral values. Most teachers do not arrive at community day school campuses with the training to take on these roles and, therefore, are learners as they take on and actualize those roles. If we as teachers are reflective about what tools we use to evolve as learners ourselves and then make concerted efforts to grow and develop, we stand in a position to be both reflective practitioners and able guides for our students who are newer learners.

The Jewish day school is, by virtue of its being an executor of Jewish values, an environment in which acts of tikkun olam and extracurricular learning are fundamental to the institution’s larger educational endeavors. As teachers in such settings, we must ask ourselves how we can serve as model learners outside our classrooms and traditional content areas.

It’s worth clarifying what such extracurricular experiences might look like. At our school, the New Community Jewish High School near Los Angeles, the opportunities for faculty involvement outside the classroom are typical—we are advisors for special interest clubs and student government, coaches for athletic teams, chaperones for local, national, and international trips—but they are also untraditional, shaped by unique faculty interests and passions that align with those of our students. For example, an English teacher runs a cooking program using only local, seasonal produce and camping gear, and a rabbi and Jewish studies teacher guides students through tai chi and meditation.

The question we must ask then is: What is the real and meaningful value of participating in or guiding learning in this way? As model learners in this context, we have seen that we can teach our students how to take inspiration from others’ passion and then respond to that passion in ways that are productive and generative, organize people of varying and different motivations around a single goal, innovate with programming that makes unusual connections between interests, develop interest in unfamiliar disciplines, integrate the elements of that emerging interest into daily life and learning practices, and balance time commitments.

What we must be careful to avoid is requiring faculty to engage in such experiences outside the classroom. If we are to be true model learners, what we must primarily model is a passion for and joy of learning that is pure and untainted by external factors. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates, Daniel Pink contends that preemptively offering rewards quickly undermines a person’s intrinsic motivation and that positive feedback after the fact is a more effective approach to sustaining a person’s motivation.

This is true of a teacher’s extracurricular involvement. Stipends, hours required, and other “carrots” will not create quality programming in which teachers are model learners. Instead, what seems most effective in our school is giving teachers the space and time to share their non-content-specific passions, hobbies and interests with students in a way that is genuine and rewarding.

Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that our primary role as teachers occurs mostly in the classroom. Some teachers find that their interests or passions do not easily translate to extracurricular student learning, or they are unable find time outside their regular teaching schedules to accommodate this extra commitment. All faculty, regardless of their extracurricular involvement, can be effective and inspirational model learners in their own classrooms, too. The question, again, is how?

Boundaries between teachers and students are essential for the safety and wellbeing of all. Sometimes, however, policies about such boundaries create a culture of fear. Teachers worry about the repercussions of sharing personal opinions or experiences that might disrupt the delicate teacher-student relationship. Those concerns are real and valid, but taken too far, they disrupt the potential for teachers to become model learners in the classroom. When teachers are given the freedom to weave their own identities into what they teach, they have the power to more subtly and powerfully model learning for their students.

Take, for example, an English teacher whose upbringing was in the same community where she now teaches, whose own views on her Jewish identity have shifted over time, and whose curriculum is, for the most part, secular. If this teacher is not required to integrate Jewish text into her curriculum and is instead given the freedom to make responsible, professional choices about how she teaches, she is more likely to make organic, natural connections to Jewish text and culture when they work for her. In this way, such a teacher can demonstrate for her students that the learning she has done throughout her life has valuable applications in other areas of her life—i.e., the ethics, values, and stories of Jewish life and learning can apply to discussions about literature written by authors of myriad backgrounds and from disparate time periods. What is more, if this teacher can acknowledge and carefully discuss with her students the ways she grapples with her Jewish identity and the manner in which literature helps her come to terms with that experience, she has potentially validated her own students’ experiences without compromising the integrity of the Jewish day school’s mission or purpose.

Teachers in community day schools must be reflective also about their role as mentor. Whether as a club advisor or a sounding board for a student, we are called upon to respond with some wisdom and guidance. This raises the question of what personal work teachers can engage in to sharpen their own skills in dealing with student concerns like stress management, conflict resolution and organization. Teachers in community day schools must be aware of the role they play in regards to mentorship and how they cultivate the attending skill sets for that role in a student’s life. Some schools have dedicated portions of their professional development days to this arena, while others have introduced more general opportunities for introspection and practice around these issues.

For example, our school has developed a program of using traditional middot (character traits) to stimulate mindfulness in our interactions with each other and with our students. In this type of practice, teachers select a “middah card” each week that contains a word such as “equanimity,” “courage,” or “calmness.” Throughout the week, the teacher attempts to put this middah into practice in a mindful way and pays attention to the effect of the middah on his interactions. These practices are done with the explicit awareness that the skills developed by teachers will have a direct translation into their ability to mentor students who are negotiating similar concerns. For instance, if a teacher’s middah is “courage,” he can share his personal work with a student who comes to him seeking guidance regarding matters of a similar nature. This is not to say that the teacher becomes a “guru” of sorts; instead, he has an opportunity to connect with a student as a learner in the same realm he finds himself and thereby model important meta-skills for personal growth.

As teachers, it is easy to become so myopic in our practice that our focus is strictly on the lessons we plan and the assignments we grade. However, we must recognize and understand that the roles we play extend far beyond that of classroom teacher. We are mentors, advisors, multifaceted human beings. Each of these roles has an attending skill set, and it is these skills that afford us the opportunity to serve as model learners in our Jewish day schools.

Because we ourselves must be on a journey of personal reflection and growth and our students are on a similar journey, it behooves us to become mindful model learners—people who learn and reflect on their learning at the same time they are teaching others to learn. People will arrive at their own conclusions about how best to accomplish this, but at the most basic level, we must ask ourselves these questions: What role do I play beyond delivering a curriculum? What do the students learn from me that I am not consciously teaching? How can I use my own journey to benefit my students?♦

Jaimi Boehm is the English department chair, student council advisor, and cancer awareness club advisor at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California. jboehm@faculty.ncjhs.org


Rabbi Devin Villarreal is a Judaic studies faculty member, Asian cultures club advisor and 10th grade mentor teacher at New Community Jewish High School. dvillarreal@faculty.ncjhs.org

Jaimi Boehm and Devin Villareal
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning