ואהבת את ה׳ אלוהיך בכל לבבך, ובכל נפשך, ובכל מאודך—“And you shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.”— Deuteronomy 6:5
I love to teach—with all my heart, soul, and might. And I love my kids, the students I teach. There is nothing more magical than the moments when we look into each others’ eyes with understanding.
Teaching at Rockwern Academy as a second-year TJF fellow has been a wonderful blessing. I attended Rockwern, previously known as Yavneh Day School, from third to sixth grade. The experiences I had there as a student have profoundly shaped how and why I teach today. Labeled the “new kid” and sometimes the teacher’s pet, I struggled to make friends back then. I enjoyed learning, but being at school was not always easy. One day, I fainted in the hallway and later had a fever. Instead of focusing on my physical ailments, I was most worried about what others would think of me. I feared that they would make fun of me behind my back. I felt alone. I wonder if there are other students at Rockwern now who share my experiences, who are hurting, who just want to belong and feel valued.
Educator Parker Palmer, in his book The Courage to Teach, discusses one of the barriers to a love-driven education: fear. Students “are afraid of failing, or not understanding…, of having their ignorance exposed or their prejudices challenged, of looking foolish in front of their peers.” Teachers also bring fear into the classroom—fear of failure and silence and losing ourselves. Palmer writes about one disengaged student whose behavior he discovered later was a symptom of a challenging home life. Only by acknowledging that even those so-called students from hell are mostly likely just afraid, not deliberately belligerent, can we create a brave and transformative learning experience.
דע לפני מי אתה עומד— “Know before whom you stand.” — Berachot 28b
דע לפני מי אתה מלמד — “Know before whom you teach.”
How can we create a caring community, a foundation of love that leads to meaningful learning? I believe it begins with knowing my students: What do they like and dislike? How do they learn? What is going on in their lives, in their inner worlds? I want to know them, to enter their world and go places together.
As much as I love teaching, not every day is a success. There were a few weeks when the lesson plan just didn’t seem to excite the students as much as they energized me. There were behavioral issues and apologies. I realized that I did not really know my fourth and fifth grade students. So, a few weeks ago, instead of doing a regular lesson, we played community-building and get-to-know-you games. I strummed my guitar and told stories. The following week, class was completely different. I sensed greater buy-in from the students. They wanted to be in class, to share with me, to participate in the activities. Because I knew them better, I was able to design a lesson that spoke more to their interests and needs.
I am reminded of a story about a princess who thought she was a chicken. This princess crawled under the table and began to squawk. She refused to speak or sit or act like a princess is supposed to act. The king and queen and all of their courtiers tried to cajole her into behaving appropriately, to no avail. The rabbi heard of the predicament and volunteered to assist. When he arrived at the palace, he joined the princess under the table. He ate with her on the floor. He squawked and stayed with her for three days. On the fourth day, the rabbi spoke: “Well, I suppose I can be a chicken and speak, don’t you think?” The princess, confused and surprised, answered, “I suppose you are right.” They spent the rest of the day, eating and squatting and speaking. The rabbi delighted in getting to know the princess. The next day, the rabbi sat at the table to eat. “I suppose I can be a chicken and eat at the table, don’t you think?” The princess thought for a moment and agreed. She joined the rabbi at the table. The following day, the rabbi whispered to the princess, “You know, you can be a princess and still be a chicken. No one will have to know.” The princess assented and, from then on, she carried out her princessly duties. And no one but the rabbi knew that she was still a chicken.
I love this story because the rabbi demonstrates that students can learn only when you get on their level and take the time to get to know them and meet them where they are. Only then can you ascend together.
In order to teach our students, we must know them—their interests and aversions, their strengths and challenges, their hopes and fears. Building these relationships is an important foundation for meaningful and successful learning, but the relationships are also valuable in themselves. When we forget the facts and figures, what will we remember? We will remember the moments and the people that made us feel that we are not alone, that we matter, and that life has purpose. We will gravitate to learning only if it energizes our souls. This is the gift of a great education. I only hope that I might be able to provide such an education to my students.
Shirah Kraus is a second-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. She currently works as the Jewish Federation Teaching Fellow at Rockwern Academy, where she was once a student.