Yes, Service and Learning

The Israelites prepared for the Exodus with gold and bread, not by learning how to swim. Despite a land-locked life, we are taught in the Babylonian Talmud that Nachshon walked up to his face in the water before it parted for the masses (b. Sota 37a). I felt similarly unprepared and submerged on my first day in the classroom and wished that I knew how to swim, or at least how to teach. One boy’s grandmother informed me that one cannot be prepared to teach; it would come only with experience.

Every week I was up to my eyes in experience. Some classes went better than others. Still, each week felt like an act of faith as I walked into the classroom. Later in the year, I found consolation in my role as a student. When I read The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer, who had been teaching for decades, he affirmed the doubts in which I had been drowning: “my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.”[1]

The feeling washing over me each week was vulnerability. If a teaching veteran like Palmer felt this way, so could I, who felt like an impostor in the teacher’s seat. Having made such strides in the study of vulnerability, it was time for me to work on the service of learning. My previous teaching experience was in an immersive Jewish environment, and I found it difficult to transition my supplementary school students from school and other activities into Jewish time. Like many religious schools, we spent a lot of time focused on holidays. My students were highly assimilated. Many of them hesitated when sharing that they celebrated the not-Jewish celebrations. They were learning to navigate their Jewish identity just as I was navigating my teacher identity.

After the initial confusion between who I thought was teaching and who I was actually teaching, our vulnerabilities became an opportunity to find holiness through distinction. For our class of first through third graders, this sort of distinction meant “yes, and”: yes, Saturday and Shabbat. Yes, most of the students celebrated Christmas and Chanukah, which was a different holiday. There was nothing wrong in having both as long as they knew the difference.

As part of a project-based learning initiative leading up to Chanukah, we explored the miracles of the holiday through comic-style pictures. It happened during this project that the same student whose grandmother had advised me on teaching told me that his Chanukah project had a Christmas tree and presents. This Chanukah project had no Chanukah! By the end, and with no loss to his family’s traditions of Christmas, we could distinguish between the two holidays. We were also able to show nuance within the Jewish festival. Chanukah became yes candles and this student’s new scene about the temple (depicted like a castle) which we had defended so long ago.

Even at the end of the year, service learning still felt more like the prospect of drowning was more likely than the prospect of reaching dry land. I taught on Sundays, and I would get nervous before Motzei Shabbat. Yet somehow by the end of the day, we all still had smiles and maybe even some new information or experiences. Yes, I was just as nervous to enter the classroom and we all managed to learn anyway.

Kylynn Perdue-Bronson currently teaches first through third grades at Temple Sholom in Blue Ash, Ohio

[1]    Parker J Palmer. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 10.

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