Teaching it “their way”

חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃Teach a young person according to their way; even when they grow old they will not swerve from it.This quote adorns not only the halls of Gesher Jewish Day School, but probably most Jewish educational institutions. It jibes particularly nicely with the current educational trends of differentiated instruction and multiple learning styles, and indicates a deep truth about the uniqueness and distinctiveness of every human being. As we close the final day of our faculty and staff pre-planning week, this message resonates particularly loudly for me, because much of our work has revolved around the idea that excellent education always includes a personalized dimension for each student.

Whenever I am asked to think about a teacher that I particularly remember as outstanding from my childhood (which happens fairly frequently for educators), my mind goes to Mrs. Rosenblitt, who taught me math in 6th grade. Because I began my career in education in my home community of Atlanta, I had the unusual privilege of continuing to learn with that same individual at the beginning of my professional career as an educator – Mrs. Rosenblitt was my first mentor teacher.

Because she is a master teacher, there are endless technical “moves” I could point to that Mrs. Rosenblitt uses effortlessly as she flows through her classrooms, but the essence of her success and pedagogical prowess lies primarily in her ability to understand and connect deeply with each of her students. This is hard work – for most of us, this kind of connection occurs through 1-on-1 interactions with friends and family, and if we don’t click with someone we can usually avoid them. Teachers have to do it for each and every child in their classroom, regardless of personal preference, and they have to juggle multiple competing needs for hours every day. Sound exhausting? It is! During my first year as a teacher I often came home from school, sat down on the couch, and then woke several hours later in my work clothes.

One of the reasons the work is so challenging is that you can’t fake it or phone it in. Children in classrooms are observing the teacher all the time, and are sensitive to all the nuances of that adult’s behavior. In fact, many educators note that children may be learning much more from the implicit behavior of the adults around them than the explicit “content” in the curriculum. So what do great teachers do? The answer, fortunately, is fairly simple: they are genuine. They explore their own inner landscapes, learning themselves inside and out, so that they can be their best, most honest selves at school. This is the spiritual aspect of teaching and learning, and it is hard work, too.

So why do teachers do all this hard work? It would be easier and more lucrative to do other things, and believe me when I say that the idea that education as a profession is full of those who can’t handle more complex work is simply ridiculous – I’m not sure that more complex work exists. They do it because they understand that our society requires them to. They do it because they know that, just as their great teachers invested and believed in them, this generation needs and deserves adults to lovingly model and guide its children. Finally, they do it because they know that finding a way to genuinely engage with each student in their class is important, meaningful work.

Thank you so much to the outstanding educators at Gesher Jewish Day School!

Shabbat Shalom,