Teachers in our Schools
We asked teachers to share a moment or experience that encapsulated for them something of the essence of being a teacher at a Jewish day school. Interestingly, responses harvested very different kinds of experiences: students’ insights in a classroom, a mother and daughters’ advocacy on a school’s behalf, parent excitement over Hebrew learning, and a broader personal transition, a shift in perspective. What all these personal testimonies have in common is the attempt to capture a feeling when everything comes together—when the meaning of their work comes into beautiful, radiant focus.
An Ongoing Journey
By Ilana Chernack, Akiva School, Westmount, Quebec
For as long as I can remember, a “journey” always implied a long road trip with my family. There was minimal preparation required of me. The ride itself was not particularly pleasant, consisting of Gravol pills, limited personal space, incessant asking “Are we there yet?” and far too many sandwiches.
Despite the unpleasantness, getting to the destination was always climactic and resulted in that sense of “I have arrived.” Yet as soon as I arrived, my feelings of happiness and relief were overshadowed by a desire to get right back in the car and return home. I wondered why this was the case: was I a pessimist or realist? I came to realize that I had not yet internalized the meaning of the term “journey.”
I spent four years in university working towards my degree in education. I can confidently declare that this provided me with the most proficient skills in lesson plan writing and report card comment composing. Yet, despite my dedication as a student, the essence of what it meant to be an “educator” eluded me. This question gnawed at me throughout my undergraduate years. When and how would this become apparent to me?
The answer began to take form when I started my professional career as a teacher at the Akiva School in Montreal. This position gave me the opportunity to work, teach and interact with many incredible individuals. These newfound mentors, colleagues and in particular, students, redirected my journey entirely. They shifted my focus from a purposeful but one-dimensional direction, to a multi-faceted, continuous odyssey. They allowed me to see the forest through the trees and the meaning behind my life choice. Indeed, they changed me as a person and as a Jewish woman but above all, they changed me as an educator.
Those who have impacted my life have shown me that the meaning, the passion and the purpose are not left at the starting point, but are taken with me and reignited throughout the journey. They have taught me that it is not about the car I am getting into for the drive, but the inner drive that will allow me to achieve excellence. They have shown me that it is not about externality of the “schoolteacher clothes” that I wear, but rather the “internal me” that will affect my students for the rest of their lives. And they have shown me that it is not about counting down the seconds until I arrive to school, but about making every second count, seizing every single moment and transforming every instant into a lesson to be learned. I remain a dedicated believer in skill-based learning, but now I have learned that the greatest gift of being an educator is preparing my students for their own journey and being a role model for every single one of them along the way.
So you see, it’s no longer about the twenty-five bodies who occupy the desks in the classroom; rather, it is about changing the twenty-five universes who stand before me. It is no longer about looking at my own reflection in the rear-view mirror, but seeing the reflection of my school’s academic and Torah-based values in my students. It is not about the final destination, but the continuous journey of self-reflection, self-discovery and self-improvement. It is an ongoing process that will never allow me to sense that anti-climactic feeling of having to return home. How could it? I am home with the journey.♦
Back to School Night
Sara Wolk Bernstein, Heilicher Minneapolis Jewish Day School
I prepare for Back to School Night with a little bit of uneasiness. I’m no longer nervous about presenting to a room full of adults as I was earlier in my career. I no longer fear that I won’t know how to respond to a questioning parent. The reason for my uneasiness stems from my desire to share with parents my love of the Hebrew language and how much I want to make Hebrew exciting and positive for my students. Since many parents approach Hebrew with some trepidation, I hope I can express that learning Hebrew is meaningful and valuable.
It wasn’t until college that I fell in love with Hebrew. I give credit to my professor, Jonathan Paradise, for that feat. From him I learned that Hebrew words that were seemingly divergent could be connected by virtue of a shared shoresh (root). I explored the complexity of the language and the imagery embedded within it, which opened up so many doors of understanding and depth of meaning for me. It became one of the reasons that propelled me to become a Jewish educator and specifically to day school education.
About 15 years ago, I embarked on a new avenue in my career. At HMJDS we had been designing our own resource department for general studies and could no longer ignore students’ needs in Hebrew. I left HMJDS administration to develop our Hebrew resource program, working with students who struggle to learn Hebrew. I discovered I have an aptitude for developing learning experiences for these learners and that it was very important to me that these children feel successful and positive about Hebrew. Over the years, I have seen great successes by students whom many thought would never be able to even read Hebrew, let alone work creatively with the language.
Just this year, I experienced a first. At our Back To School Night, I had only a short time to discuss our Hebrew program. I explained that in 4th grade, we see that students are beginning to be able to think more deeply and understand more complexity in regards to verbs. This expands their capabilities in using the language; grade 4 is often a doorway to more proficiency in Hebrew.
To illustrate my point, I used the shoresh shin-lamed-mem, which I wrote on the board. I explained that this shoresh can be used to form the following words in Hebrew: leshalem (to pay or compensate), lehashlim (to complete) and shalem (whole).
As I expected, one of the parents in the room said, “It looks like the word shalom!” I further explained that the word we use to mean “peace” really has a much deeper meaning, a more complex imagery behind it, one that includes the element of completeness. Another father was very excited to learn this about Hebrew, and exclaimed in one run-on sentence, “I never knew this about Hebrew—so that is why some can read Hebrew without vowels if you know the context, is this true all over Hebrew?, my kids are learning this about Hebrew? Wow! That is so cool…”
I have been fortunate to see the light bulb go on for so many students about Hebrew and watch them find the same “coolness” and value in the language that I see. To my great satisfaction, this year, I was able to bring a parent to that same great place.♦
Why I Teach
Nathan Somers, The Lerner School, Durham, NC
It was first period on a clear crisp September morning, and my fifth grade Judaic studies students and I stood silently in our school’s garden watching as the sun made its way above the building’s roof and began to illuminate the garden with a warm golden glow.
Students held in their hands leaves, flower petals, seeds, acorns, decaying wood, stones and seedlings gleaned from our school garden. We had begun the morning by discussing Sukkot and the idea of harvest festivals. Students had read two short passages from Kohelet and we were outside reflecting on the text and choosing items from the garden that we felt represented the ideas we had read in Kohelet.
As we came together as a group and began to discuss how the items we held represented birth and death, tearing down and building up, planting and harvesting, we also discussed the cyclical nature of the statements made in the text. We came to the conclusion that although the plants and trees in our garden are “born” and one day will “die” they will also produce new generations. This understanding led us to recognize that the cycle of life never really ends. One generation is simply surpassed by another that carries on the work of those who came before.
I was moved by the clear, straightforward wisdom of my students and the simplicity of the items they had taken from the garden. As we left the field and returned to our classroom I felt pride in my students, but I also felt that special feeling that keeps me committed to being a Judaic studies teacher: a feeling of contentment in knowing that students not only know something but that they have learned to process an idea.
Back in class we discussed the final parshah in the Torah, Vezot haberakhah. It is in this parshah that Moses shares his final message with the Israelites, passes on the leadership of the people to Joshua, and goes up into the mountains where he dies and is buried by God. Without dropping a beat, the students recognized that this is an end but not “the” end. They explained to me that although their leader Moses has died, his work, patience, soul, and memory will continue on with the people as they enter into the land of Canaan and begin to create their own lives there.
As a Judaic studies teacher I often feel overwhelmed with everything I need to do. I feel that Rabbi Tarfon is speaking directly to me about my job when he states in Pirkei Avot, “You don’t have to complete the work, but you are not free to desist from it.” I have prayers to teach, lessons to write, history to explore, technology to learn, emails to answer, but just when it feels like too much, and I am ready to desist from at least some of my work—the sun rises above the school’s roof and illuminates the faces of my students. Then they grasp another concept, turn it over and over again in their minds, and ask a deep question or share an amazing thought that makes me feel that pride and contentment of being a teacher once again.♦
And From My Students Most of All
Rabbi Moshe Yosef Gewirtz, Rabbi David L. Silver Yeshiva Academy, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
“Rabbi Tarphon used to say, ‘It is not your responsibility to finish the work; neither are you free to evade it.” (Pirkei Avot 2:16)
“Whoever preserves a single soul in Israel is considered by Scripture to have preserved an entire world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:2)
Talmudic quotes such as these are a necessary elixir for the soul of those involved in Jewish education today, especially those of us in areas with small Jewish populations like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We don’t need Pew surveys to realize that for all the examples of retention and return, there are more of loss and disinterest. The personal experience of Jewish educators reflects much frustration because of all those students we could have taught but did not, or did teach at a young age but not when they were mature enough to absorb what is life-changing about Torah. For our own happiness and motivation to continue teaching, we must learn to focus on what we do accomplish with those we do reach.
I have been teaching long enough to have seen many of my students grow Jewishly and pass on their love of Torah in their own families. The development of one family in particular gives me special joy. (Certain facts have been changed to insure their anonymity.)
From the beginning it was clear that Brad was a special student and a challenging one. When his kindergarten class performed at assemblies, he couldn’t sit on his chair for more than a few seconds. I was always profoundly impressed with his parents who displayed no evidence of embarrassment despite being aware that all eyes must have been on their son. Brad was very bright and had a winning personality, although it was often difficult to understand his speech.
Brad’s sister, Rachel, three years his senior, was an average student and very athletic. Her quiet demeanor in school gave no hint of the intelligence and depth she would express later.
The children’s mother, Shelly, was Jewish, but their father, John, was not. A mixed marriage is by no means always an indication of an apathetic attitude towards Jewish education. However, in this case, it became clear that the family’s commitment to the school was only for the early grades.
As time passed, however, Rachel and Brad remained in the school. Brad was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and qualified for therapeutic staff support. He made significant progress, and by sixth grade he no longer needed the support. His enjoyment of Judaic subjects and his mature understanding were impressive. Brad had an almost “Rashi-like” ability to say much with few words. Despite sometimes giving the impression of being distracted with other matters, Brad was always on task, absorbing, creatively thinking and contributing much to class.
As much progress as Brad made, the more inspiring sibling for me was Rachel. Despite not always finishing homework or being prepared for tests, Rachel enjoyed learning Torah. One could see by her facial expressions and enthusiasm that she was interacting with Torah in a very personal and profound way.
The year after she graduated, we maintained our teacher-student relationship at the Sunday Hebrew High School. Rachel and her Silver Academy classmates participated in a ninth grade shabbaton in the shomer Shabbat neighborhood and left wanting to do it again. But the most significant experience happened toward the end of that ninth grade year.
One of the classes in the school appeared headed for disintegration. The parents of more than half of the students were planning on not reenrolling their children the following September. Most of these parents agreed to attend a parlor meeting called by the school president to discuss their decisions and the school’s exciting plans for the coming year. In the end, the meeting did not sway any of the parents.
But a comment made at the meeting left me with a positive feeling when I went home. Shelly attended the meeting. After hearing a few parents speak about their reasons for their children not returning, Shelly asked to speak. What followed was a brief but eloquent and impassioned argument for allowing one’s children to receive as much Jewish education as possible. About how the quality secular and Jewish education at the Silver Academy allowed her daughter to become an intelligent, mature, responsible, compassionate, God-respecting, community involved and Jewishly committed young lady.
And then Shelly said that her daughter, Rachel, who really wanted to come to the meeting but couldn’t, asked that the following message be related. “I can’t understand why anyone would deny their children a Jewish education for as long as possible. The middle school years were the ones that really made me into who I am. I am so grateful to my parents for allowing me to have a meaningful Jewish education at least in the beginning of my teenage years, so that the ideas of the Torah can be incorporated into my adult personality.”
Rachel’s words, as well as the appreciation of her mother, brother, father and many others give me hope that although the numbers don’t look very promising in the big picture, Jewish educators are making a difference. We must persevere in our work. Each soul in Israel is like an entire world. And with God’s help, the results might even be more amazing than we ever dare dream.♦