When My Students Became My Teachers

Ben Zoma said, “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone, as it is said; ‘From all who would teach me, have I gained understanding.’” [Ps 119:99] — Pirke Avot 4:1

As a teacher I often find that well-known quotes have a basis in something much older. The common phrase “and the student becomes the teacher” is seen in countless books and movies and for many has lost its ability to surprise. We think, “of course the student has become the teacher” rather than reveling at how hard it is to become a teacher and how difficult it can be to allow oneself to be taught. My time at Kulanu: The Cincinnati Reform Jewish High School has reminded me that learning opportunities are presented to instructors each and every time we teach.

My religious school students, of all ages, may never remember the facts that I give them during our time together, but I do not expect them to. What I expect of my students is that they learn how to apply Jewish values to their everyday experiences. To impart this knowledge, I attempt to model Jewish living and values in my interactions with them and in my everyday life. Authenticity is essential to educating teenagers, because they are so accustomed to being manipulated in one way or another. Living Jewishly impacts the major topics in the discourse of the country and has especially included the presidential election this year.

I have focused this year on trying different ways to get my students to engage with the topic or the material, and I have learned that the best way is to show them how. So when I ask a question of them, I answer it myself first before asking my co-teachers to do the same. Once we teachers have made ourselves vulnerable, our students feel confident in doing the same.

The Sunday after the presidential election I walked into my eleventh-grade classroom with my co-teacher and prepared for the worst. My entire world had been shaken by the election results but my responsibility as a teacher was to give my students a safe space in which to discuss their experiences over the past few days. Because I am a strong believer in being truthful and direct with my students, I opened our discussion by stating that I had not only voted for Clinton but had campaigned for her, that I was having a hard time with the amount of hatred I saw as a response to the election, and that I wanted to hear how each of the students was doing. I then opened the floor to them.

The skill of having a discussion without letting it devolve into an argument is unfortunately not taught. I believe that every one of my students must feel safe to express his or her opinions in my class. I was surprised to find that at some point during the year we had managed create a space where that safe space honestly existed. This year media has failed on multiple occasions to model respectful disagreement and discourse. My students spend a good deal of time on social media and for them to help create a classroom where such an open dialogue space could thrive is particularly impressive.

Our discussion about the election was a lesson for me in how to moderate. But more than that, it was also a lesson in never making assumptions about the people around you. One student spoke eloquently about his support of Trump, and his story about the adult who flipped him off at his school because of that support was both inspiring and heartbreaking. A different student spoke of her fear not only for herself but for her friends who are LGBTQ or not white. As the discussion evolved, I thought to myself how impressive my students were. Here they were having a conversation that many in our country are unable to have. They were not only responding to one another but engaging one another in dialogue. After a week in which I was emotionally torn up, my students taught me that I need to have faith not only in them but in the country at large.

I have my students to thank for helping me believe that the future will be better. I have my co-teachers to thank for helping me create a safe space both for our students and for myself. It is never easy to enter a community as the “new kid” and be placed in a leadership position. Learning how to establish a safe space, to model what I expect of my students, and to learn from my mistakes has taken a lot of patience and trust in process. My students showed themselves to be teachers back in November, and I know that they will continue to model this for me if only I give them a chance.

Simone Schicker is a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of religion and a current leadership fellow at Kulanu: The Cincinnati Reform Jewish High School.

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