I Am a Teacher, I am a Text

Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. (Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life)

Jewish educators committed to reflective practice know that every element in the classroom affects the learning environment, from the subject chosen, to how instruction is differentiated, and even to how the chairs and desks are arranged. At heart, however, the greatest impact we have upon students is through the way in which we model Jewish life to them. While many educators choose to teach in Jewish day schools because of their love of Jewish texts, our Jewish tradition and educational theory suggest that we are the most important text studied in our classrooms.

Many of us are familiar with the famous quote of Abraham Joshua Heschel that the teacher is “the text the students never forget,” yet it is important to read Heschel’s quote in its original context and think about what Heschel considers to be implications of this statement.

What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget. The modern teacher, while not wearing a snowy beard, is a link in the chain of a tradition. He is the intermediary between the past and the present as well. Yet he is also the creator of the future of our people. He must teach the pupils to evaluate the past in order to clarify their future. (“Jewish Education,” in The Insecurity of Freedom)

For Heschel, teachers are a text because the totality of their Jewish life speaks greater volumes than any text taught in the classroom. As a result, when Jewish educators think about their educational vision, they must recognize that who they are as a person will teach lessons the students will notice, analyze and remember.

When I began my career in Jewish education, I used to get annoyed that the teenagers I taught found my off-the-cuff comments about a movie, television show, or last night’s football game more interesting than the text I wanted to teach. Over time, however, I began to see how common interests and the totality of who I was as a human being provided the trigger for us to engage in a deeper learning experience. In “Eros and Education,” Joseph Schwab writes,

The manner and appearance which will evoke liking and respect in the student will arise only as the teacher does, in fact, respond to the persons before him. (It is the reciprocity of evocation and response which constitutes a genuine interpersonal relationship.)

According to Schwab, robust learning necessarily involves teachers thinking about how they might draw their students into an interpersonal connection, for that connection builds the foundation of a learning relationship. The moment I realized my students were more interested in me than the subject, I discovered the way in which I could make this fact a stepping stone, rather than a stumbling block.

As Jewish educators, we like to believe that the subject, Judaism, is the center of our work. However, the reality is that learning involves what David Hawkins says is a connection between an I (the teacher), a Thou (the learner), an It (the subject). By extension, if we want our students to connect better with the subject, we need to ask hard questions about how their relationship to the subject is affected by their relationship to us. Hawkins writes:

It’s a tradition which is expressed by saying, in one way or another, that people don’t amount to very much except in terms of their involvement in what is outside and beyond them. A human being is a localized physical body, but you can’t see him as a person unless you see him in his working relationships with the world around him. The more you cut off these working relationships, the more you put him in a box, figuratively or literally, the more you diminish him. Finally, when you’ve narrowed him down to nothing more than the surface of the skin and what’s inside, without allowing him any kind of relationship with the world around him, you don’t have very much left. (“I, Thou, and It,” in The Informed Vision)

If I want my student to love studying Talmud or Israel, or want to deepen their connection to Shabbat or prayer, I cannot ignore how their relationship to their teachers affects their relationship to the subject. The more I open myself up as a person whose very presence can affect my students, the more comfortable the students will feel working with me to engage with the subject matter.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that educators move in a direction of eliminating boundaries between teacher and student, or make some kind of attempt to be the “cool teacher” that inevitably results in less attention to one’s pedagogy. Instead, just as every educator knows that good pedagogy involves modulating our methods of instruction in order to engage the students in different ways, so too must we insert aspects of who we are as individuals at appropriate moments to invite our students to think about the living and learning component of Jewish education.

For example, I am currently teaching the 12th grade intensive class at my school on the fourth chapter of Bavli Berakhot, which deals with many concepts of Jewish prayer that exist today. At the conclusion of these students’ day school experience, when many of them can feel burned-out by being “forced” to pray every day for the last thirteen years, the subject matter I teach will mean little unless I am willing to let them speak about their own prayer lives and share feelings about my own, as well. We began our year by studying the corresponding chapter in the Mishnah, where the students were drawn to the following text:

Rabbi Eliezer says: One who makes his prayer fixed, his prayer is not supplication [for divine mercy]. Rabbi Yehoshua says: On who is traveling in a dangerous place should offer a brief prayer, and say: “Save God, Your People, the remnant of Israel. Even when they distance themselves through sin, let their needs be before You. Praised are You, God, who hears prayer.” (Berakhot 4:4)

While many day school students eventually study this text as a means of learning how the early rabbis conceived of personal prayer, this text represents an excellent opportunity for teachers to share a piece of themselves with the students. After translating the text, defining key terms, and analyzing how these two statements in a single mishnah fit together, many teachers might ask, “How frequently do you think prayer in our school resembles the kind of prayer Rabbi Eliezer wants us to avoid?”, or “Are you surprised that the rabbis make this kind of assertion?” as a means of letting the students share their own opinion about the larger issues raised by the text. However, what many teachers will not do is share their feeling about this text, and how their prayer life includes moments when prayer might feel “fixed” for them. Our instinct is to keep ourselves out of the lesson, for fear that we become the focus of our conversation. Yet how much richer would this larger conversation be if we saw what new avenues would be opened for ourselves by us opening ourselves to them?

To be fair, it takes courage to share a piece of ourselves with our students. But our willingness to share who we are in appropriate moments can be the difference between an interesting intellectual exercise and transformative moment. A beautiful midrash explains that the relationship between teachers and students is akin to that a parent and a child:

“Impress them upon your children”—these are your students. You find that in every place “students” are referred to as “children” as it says further on (Deuteronomy 14:1): “You are children of the Lord your God” and it says (II Kings 2:3), “The children of the prophets who had been in Beth-El came out to Elisha.” But were they the children of the prophets? They were actually “disciples,” and from this verse we learn that disciples are called “children.” (Sifrei Deuteronomy 6:7)

If any meaningful Jewish education experience combines living and learning, then it follows that the life and personality of the educator teaches something important about what it means to be a Jew, and thus we cannot separate who we are from what we teach. Sadly, in spite of the fact that all teenagers spend significant amount of time in the presence of teachers, scholars who study which adults most impact teenagers argue that “there is little evidence that their relationships with the average teacher are as emotionally significant as their relationships with the average parent or sibling, and certainly not as salient as their relationship with a close friend” (Nancy Darling, Stephen F. Hamilton and Katherine Hames Shaver, “Relationships Outside the Family: Unrelated Adults,” in Blackwell Handbook of Adolescence). While this conclusion is sobering, it also presents a tremendous opportunity, should we be willing to think boldly about what is possible if we engage in a paradigm-shift of how we see the primary task of a Jewish educator.

For most of us, our passion for Jewish learning and Jewish education did not come from a text that we learned but from an educator who taught it. If we are willing to acknowledge Parker Palmer’s assertion that teaching emerges from something deep within us and embrace our role as a text taught in the classroom, we make the space for wider and deeper set of conversations in our classroom.

Think about your work in Jewish education. What are moments when you allow your personality to shine through to your students? How do you model Judaism to them in the classroom, the hallway, the cafeteria, and when you see them outside of school? The notion that every action we perform impacts our students creates discomfort, yet it is also from this discomfort that we can find the greatest source of influence as educators. We are teachers, but we are also texts; what lessons would you like your students to study about you?♦

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is rabbi-in-residence at the Schechter School of Long Island. jrabin@ssdsnassau.org, joshuarabin.com

Joshua Rabin
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning