What Day Schools Need Is... More Cool Teachers

Our day schools need more cool teachers. Not necessarily the kind of teachers who wear high-top sneakers and hipster jeans, though there’s nothing wrong with that if that happens to be your style. Our kids need teachers to embody a different kind of cool.

When I interviewed small clusters of middle and upper students at my school and asked what makes a teacher “cool,” they used words like “funny,” “nice,” “understands us” and “doesn’t treat us like babies.” Being cool means not being aloof or indifferent, and it also means being willing to play a little with the students on their terms out at recess or in the kinds of on-task classroom games that make class lively, suspenseful and highly interactive.

For the students I interviewed, teachers who exude cool exude its opposite: warmth.

Quite tellingly, the students added, teachers who exude cool also exude something authentic. They age gracefully and they don’t color their hair or try to hide their half-glasses. Cool teachers keep the focus not on themselves but on taking students seriously as young scholars. Students think it is pretty cool when a teacher shares a passionate pursuit of knowledge.

Some of my students over the years have told me that they like it when a teacher isn’t just their teacher. They like knowing something about who their teachers are outside of school. Students chafe, though, when a teacher shares TMI (that’s short for “Too Much Information”). Students only want to know so much about their teachers, and most importantly, they want to know if the teacher has life experience, likes kids, and can show empathy. If the teacher struggled and succeeded, then the student can, too, but if the teacher seems too smooth and doesn’t show any rough edges, then the students will put up their own walls and conclude that they cannot learn from someone who isn’t a role model for learning.

While our 2000 year-old Jewish tradition doesn’t directly address a concept as relatively new as cool, there are some passages in the Tanakh and in rabbinic literature that speak to some of the same qualities our students want to seek in their cool teachers.

Psalm 34 describes an individual who embraces life and who sees the good in things: מי האיש החפץ חיים אוהב ימים לראות טוב Who is the one who desires life, who appreciates his days and sees the good?

Desiring and embracing life is a sure way to be cool because cool for a middle or high school student is not at all cold. It is committed and affirming.

Another passage that comes to mind comes from Pirkei Avot 2:6, where Hillel teaches, ובמקום שאין אנשים תשתדל להיות איש In a place where there are no worthy people, try to be a worthy person.

When chaos swirls around us, like at 2 pm on a rainy Friday afternoon in the middle school, right when students are within an hour of dismissal and nothing stands between them and Shabbat but a class, being cool means being sympathetic and level-headed (not always easy!), but not succumbing to the chaos, remaining the adult in the room.

There are ways in which being cool also means showing modesty. In the now classic movie Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams plays a teacher named John Keating who seeks to inspire his students to join him in tearing up their textbooks, discarding the curriculum they have been handed and seizing the day instead. He touches the hearts of his students and he excites their passion for learning with his charisma. On reflection after I viewed the film recently, I came to wonder if the teacher Mr. Keating leaves enough room for the students to develop their own identity, or are they asked to accept the teacher’s outlook too readily?

Some of the coolest teachers I observe in the school where I work don’t stand on their desks to get attention. Instead, they ask the students to put the texts they study to music or they ask the students to make a plan that will take what they learn in the classroom to a new phase beyond the classroom walls. Cool teachers allow disagreement and they invite many sources of information in the classroom that build a community that respects academic discourse.

In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain describes the ways in which introverts are good listeners, good systems thinkers and effective at helping others to find their voices. As much as we need teachers who will be like a Mr. Keating and excite the kids, I have observed that some of the coolest teachers in the school where I work don’t stand on their desks to get attention. Instead, they engage the students as partners in learning and they inspire them to put the texts they study to music, to find the delicious ironies in stories about our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs and to dig deeper to express themselves more completely in a second draft. Cool teachers allow disagreement and they invite many sources of information into their classrooms, building a community of learners that values academic discourse.

One final verse comes to mind when I think about what makes a teacher cool. The prophet Isaiah describes the strength that comes from a certain kind of faith: ירוצו ולא יגעו, ילכו ולא ייעפו They shall run and not grow weary; they shall march and not grow faint.

Being cool means going the distance with our kids and having faith in their potential to grow into mature adults. We teachers should stay limber and try not to get weary of our work so that we can sustain the coolness that our students need. If we can go the distance with them, it will give them strength to persist and go the distance themselves. That kind of commitment and persistence can be cool, too.

When our students come back as proud alumni, they don’t want to see us frozen in time in the same skinny ties or denim skirts that were cool “back in the day.” They want to see that we are up-to-date, but that we still embody the values that we passed on to them when they were hungry students in our classes.

Our schools need cool teachers, the kind who are authentic and who want more than anything to nurture the next generation.♦

Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston PhD is the director of Jewish studies at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and the author of Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools. jlevingston@jbha.org

Judd Levingston
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning