Becoming a “School of Becoming”

The role of Jewish education is to inspire us to become our best selves. To inspire students, teachers first need to inspire themselves. Teachers don’t need to create inspiration, but model it for their students.

What does it mean to inspire? Doesn’t it all just boil down to being charismatic and a great singer/storyteller?

Actually, “inspire” means to inhale, to breathe in deeply. In Hebrew, the word lishof means both to inhale and to yearn. In other words, the Hebrew language is teaching us: There is no inspiration without yearning. Inhaling and yearning both give life. Moreover, the deeper the yearning or inhaling, the more powerful the inspiration. What is yearning in education? Through the Jewish wisdom I am teaching or learning, I begin to imagine and envision becoming a better version of me. If we want our teachers to inspire, we must encourage them to see themselves as works-in-progress; to see the Jewish wisdom they’re teaching as the key to their own self-growth; and to share this with their students.

Many teachers “go into” education for the wrong reasons:

  • They loved to learn.
  • They loved their subject.
  • They succeeded as students in school.

People who become educators for these reasons tend to be uninspiring because they focus on the transmission of content. Perhaps this approach worked in previous generations when knowledge held a certain mystique, but educating for content is not relevant and certainly not inspiring for today’s generation. Thanks to technology, kids are able to access information that interests them from a very young age. One’s ability to self-teach from a place of ease and comfort will only expand in the coming years. Plus, when browsing the internet, I am free to choose exactly what interests me. But in class, even if the teacher loves his or her subject, only a few students are there out of love. To summarize: Content alone is hardly a recipe for inspired teaching.

So how can we move from a content-driven educational approach to an inspiration-driven approach?

Step 1: A paradigm shift on how teachers approach their teaching

Before thinking about how to present material to students, teachers need to look inside themselves, reflect, and imagine how they themselves can be personally impacted and changed by what they are about to teach. If teachers are not deeply affected by what they teach, there is no chance that their students will be deeply affected. Students will never be more engaged than their teachers. To be inspirational, teachers do not have to be charismatic or utilize advanced technology; they need to “inhale their subject,” to become affected by the subject matter they are teaching.

The practical advice here is that teachers need to envision their better selves emerging on account of their engagement with the material they’re about to teach. Teachers need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • “What is this subject saying to me right now?”
  • “How can learning this subject affect and impact my own life?”
  • If the material is not affecting the teacher, then in the classroom the teacher will only be giving over information, without inspiration.

For example:

Hanukkah is a story of national courage. An educator looking to teach about Hanukkah should reflect on courage in the educator’s own life and evaluate how, through teaching about Hanukkah, the educator can become a more “stand up” individual.

The story of Cain and Abel is about comparing and jealousy. An educator looking to present this event should stop, look inside him/herself, and ask: “How am I doing with the challenge of comparing myself to others and getting jealous?” As a result, the teacher will first undergo a personal learning experience related to this topic that will only strengthen the inspiration potential in the classroom later.

When teaching about Israel, educators need to recognize what is missing or broken in their own relationship with Israel, reflect on how they can deepen or fix the relationship, and through learning-teaching, renew that bond.

This is how educators can see themselves not as masters and transmitters of content but as role models of “letting the learning into my life”—yearning to become one’s better self via focused learning. When educators succeed in personally inhaling the material, then their classrooms naturally become inspirational. During the last four years I have personally witnessed this transformation, both at the teacher level and through student responses.

To build this kind of teacher, we need to institute a completely different approach to teacher training.

First of all, we need to find teachers who view themselves as fellow journeyers, as works-in-progress. People who love Judaism not only because of its wisdom, but because it is the essential key through which they personally grow. We should no longer be looking for masters of content, for experts. We should no longer be looking for teachers who build efficient lectures or have the coolest gimmicks. We need to find teachers who see Jewish wisdom as the key to discovering their better selves and who are deeply dedicated to pursuing this goal. The truth is that the teachers who model personal growth will also be more successful in conveying content.

Secondly, we need to cultivate the ability and capacity for teachers to share their own journeys with their students. To make the classroom inspirational, teachers do not have to be charismatic, technologically savvy, great storytellers, or singers of niggunim. They do not have to be scholars in their fields. To bring inspiration to the classroom, teachers need to be modeling their journeys—with personal openness, vulnerability and sincerity.

So often teachers feel compelled to “cover ground,” to not “fall behind.” Ultimately, what will really impact students’ inner lives is not the amount of material they cover in class, but the depth and vitality of the students’ personal relationship with the material. Teachers need to share with their students why they, the teachers, also need to learn and reflect on what they’re teaching in order to continue on their own personal journeys. When teachers share from their own lives how their subject is impacting them then the material becomes alive, even electric, for their students. If teachers evoke this inner yearning, then their students will echo it. If not, then not.

Rav Kook writes that the goal of education is spiritual unity (Orot HaKodesh II: 247). According to Rav Kook, spiritual unity is achieved through evoking, balancing and harmonizing four primary qualities: intellect, emotion, imagination and action. The animating, energizing and inspiring element of education is the third element, imagination. First we learn Jewish wisdom (intellect). Next we engage with it personally (emotion). Third, we envision how it can impact our lives (imagination). Finally, we live it (action). Most Jewish education today ends with the first or perhaps the second stage, intellect and emotion.

Our day school classrooms are suffering from a lack of imagination. According to Rav Kook, imagination is the key to Jewish education working, creating actively Jewish human beings who constantly grow through their engagement with Judaism. We need to be able to imagine how Jewish wisdom can affect and change our lives. Yearning is the expression of our imagination and inspiration is the result.

Here’s how imagination enters education: Imagination is seeing the better me that does not yet exist. I know who I am today, but I can only “imagine” a better me. That “better me” does not yet exist in reality. Imagination is a product of yearning; we are not satisfied with who we are today, we are not satisfied with the present reality, we yearn for our better selves, so we imagine how this might come about. Learning Jewish wisdom should open the floodgates to imagining my better self. In the study of Jewish wisdom, pure knowledge is not the end goal; study is the springboard for imagining and guiding myself to a better version of me.

“Inspiration” bears a different face in today’s Jewish schools. Often schools over-rely on extracurricular activities such as shabbatons and trips to supply inspiration to their students and to compensate for uninspiring classroom education. The clear message: Text-based learning is functional and uninspiring, and only non-learning activities have the potential to be engaging or inspiring. Basically, we’re settling for lifeless classrooms, devoid of she’ifah—inhaling and inspiring.

The antidote to the comatose classroom, the fuel for inspiration, is imagination. In art school, the first requirement of new students is to practice sketching many hours a day to free their imagination—to teach their hands how to speak freely, without self-censorship or insecurity. Similarly, teacher training should be dedicated to engaging and cultivating imagination, practicing getting to feeling safe and comfortable bringing this imagining to their own lives and their classrooms.

It is not easy for educators to undergo this paradigm shift. Many teachers never had educational role models who experienced active personal growth or shared it with them in the context of learning. Often teachers operate from a position of power, from the assumption that there is something they know and their students do not. We need a paradigm shift that breaks down the familiar hierarchy. Teacher or student, we are all human beings seeking to grow through Jewish wisdom.

Step 2: From knowing to becoming

Principals and heads of Judaic studies departments need to learn how to lead the process in transforming their school into a school of “becoming.” They need to model for their staffs and students being works-in-progress, imagining and demonstrating their growing through their learning. It is virtually impossible for teachers to risk teaching from this new paradigm, to share their yearning and personal journey, if they do not have the support of their principals and Judaic studies department heads. Heads of schools need to lead by example. From the first day of the school year, the principal and department heads need to set the stage by sharing personally with their students and staff how they themselves are works-in-progress, looking to grow during the upcoming school year. They need to share concrete examples of how they grew during the last year through learning and what they are presently working on. Again, if we want our students to be affected by their learning, and to do so we need our teachers to be affected by their learning, then the heads of school must be the supreme modelers and leaders of being affected by their learning.

Imagine a professional development program that teaches school leaders and senior educators how to:

  • Become more personally reflective and deepen their awareness of being works-in-progress.
  • Approach their own personal learning as vehicles for their own growth.
  • Build a school atmosphere of journeying and being works-in-progress.
  • Have faculty meetings focusing on the personal growth and yearning of the teachers.
  • Develop collegiality with other school leaders and senior educators who can act as kindred spirits to support this process.

This is not rocket science. It’s a perspective that any educator and administrator can adopt. Judaism itself is not just about information or “knowing,” it is about “becoming.” The Jewish story begins with the journey of Avraham and continues with the journey of the Jewish people. Journeying is the antithesis of complacency; it’s the action that comes with yearning for something more. If we want education to be inspiring, if we want our teachers to feel inspired, we need to create an educational culture of yearning and “becoming.”

How would most day school educators complete the sentence: “Jewish education is ...”?

I would offer: “Jewish education is a community of becoming—where Jewish wisdom is the premier tool that helps me and my community imagine and evoke our better selves.”

Rabbi Aryeh Ben David
Jewish Inspiration
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning