“Mi shenichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha.“
“When Adar enters, joy increases.” (Ta’anit 29a)
For almost a month and a half I have looked at that quote, sensing a connection to my teaching. I stared at that line, humming the niggun, and thinking “How could I increase the joy? How could I make Hebrew School a better place for my students? How can I make them happier?”
I have struggled greatly to find the right mindset for this. Each time I approached the subject I realized I was taking on a negative trajectory, assuming that things were not happy; that things were broken. I became preoccupied with the places where my students were weak, assuming that increasing joy meant correcting these areas. I fixated on half-realized projects which required skills that my students don’t have yet. I had come to believe that attempting to increase joy in the classroom had to mean that joy wasn’t already there, which is a foolish idea. Of course there is joy in the classroom—because the marbim b’simcha part, increasing joy, had already occurred. Just like with God in the megillah, I had not realized it was in the story until I was retelling it. Until I took a look back and realized, joy had increased, because I am the one who has increased in joy.
You see, at the start of this year I was not excited to teach children.
I had spent the last two years furthering only my own education. I was actively engaged in my studies at the Pardes Institute for Jewish Learning and at HUC-JIR Jerusalem. Almost nothing in my life had made me happier than studying traditional texts and commentary with my chevrutot. We would have long deep discussions, exhaustive diatribes, epic tangents. We would roll the text over, and then roll it over again, machlochet after machlochet.
The first day I arrived at my fellowship I had ten important words in my mind and an enduring understanding I had cobbled together written on my lesson plan. My iPad, a PowerPoint presentation, and a source sheet made up the rest of my materials. I thought teaching was going to be just like watching my teachers in the Beit Midrash. I would speak, my students would listen, and then they would study.
The students did not listen. They would not sit still. They interrupted each other. They made fun of the gutturals in the Hebrew. They refused to make eye contact with me, preferring to stare at their laps, and their half-hidden phones, which I could not get them to put away. They would not even glance at my source sheets, and my slide show failed to entertain them.
I left that day angry and dejected. Teaching was not for me, I decided. In my mind they did not care about the material, and why should they? The material was clearly flawed. On my first reflection for education class I had nothing but negative things to say and observations about how the children had not lived up to my expectations. “I don’t want to say, ‘I don’t like children’,” I wrote. “… but teaching them is totally foreign to me.”
What I should have seen, and known, was that my students were just as tense with me. Who was I? I was a stranger who was expecting impossible things from them. Teaching from the front of the room, not letting them learn to their strengths, and assuming that the Torah I wanted to teach was the Torah they needed to learn.
You do not need to wait for Adar to increase in joy, and you do not need to wait for Purim to flip things on their head. One day I decided that I would refuse to be negative about my teaching. I do not know if that is what flipped things, but something did. Over time I made inroads with my students, and I made inroads with myself. From feedback, trial and error, and my education class at HUC, I learned how to add material that I felt was genuine. I learned methods for presenting it in ways that my students cared about. I loosened up, dropped the “rabbi voice,” and tried to engage from more than one angle
And the students responded. Suddenly I was so proud. Proud of them for understanding difficult material, for taking the two hours a week they get and turning it into something meaningful, proud of them for learning. And the funny thing is, I did not even realize I had flipped around. I did not realize I was not leaving angry anymore, I did not realize that everything I had hoped for that first day, the sweetness of learning Torah, was happening, until I started staring at these words: Mi shenichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha.
Adar managed to sneak into my life a few months early. It leaves in a few days. But the joy stays.
Sam Kaye is a Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati fellow teaching seventh- and eighth-grade students at Rockdale Temple.