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Understanding teachers

I’ve been thinking a lot about teachers this week.  The BC teachers strike is hurting so many people in this province on so many fronts.  Parents are scrambling to find childcare on a daily basis, students themselves are not in a regular learning environment, and teachers, who have been without a paycheque for some time now, and with no clear end to the strike in sight, are dealing with mounting debt and financial worries for them and their families.

apple-on-deskAnd really, on the issue of the strike, everyone has an opinion, and people, to put it mildly, are not shy or pareve about sharing their views.  While public opinion generally is behind the teachers, I constantly read comments on Facebook that would make your skin crawl, as people write all sorts of nasty stuff at, and about, the teachers.  At the end of the day, the striking teachers are often family members, our friends, or our neighbours.  So it is very painful to see how members of the public can often be so ugly in their portrayal of teachers.

Sir Ken Robinson, in his famous 2006 presentation entitled “Do schools kill creativity?”, which is one of the highest viewed TED talks of all time, offers us an insight into why we are so passionate, one way or another, about education and the vehicle behind it – teachers.

He says:

“I have an interest in education — actually, what I find is, everybody has an interest in education; don’t you? I find this very interesting. If you’re at a dinner party, and you say you work in education — actually, you’re not often at dinner parties, frankly, if you work in education, you’re not asked. And you’re never asked back, curiously. That’s strange to me. But if you are, and you say to somebody, you know, they say, “What do you do,” and you say you work in education, you can see the blood run from their face. They’re like, “Oh my god,” you know, “why me? My one night out all week.” But if you ask people about their education, they pin you to the wall. Because it’s one of those things that goes deep with people, am I right?, like religion, and money, and other things.”

Teaching is a complex task, with multiple critical areas that require developing competence and then mastery over time.  They say that the average classroom teacher will make more than 1,500 educational decisions every school day, in order to ensure that the right message is being delivered the right way to the right child.

While I love teaching and miss being in a classroom every single day, and really consider teaching to be the holiest of tasks, I do not see it through rose coloured glasses.  It is an incredibly challenging art form and profession – do it right, and you create magic; do it pareve, and ten years from now, you won’t be remembered by anyone; do it wrong, and you can hurt someone for life.

For example, I remember my CEGEP teacher for English, who introduced me to Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin, the best short story I have ever read, and continue to read over and over again, to this day.  I remember my high school biology teacher who let us dissect a cow’s eyeball and I thought that was the coolest thing ever – we actually have something in our body called vitreous humour; how funny is that?.  I remember my Psychology professor, who introduced me to the social psychology experiments of Stanley Milgram, and it was so fascinating and so profound, I thought my brain was going to explode.  I remember my rebbe in yeshiva who taught me about Shaul HaMelech (King Saul) going to war against Amalek but sparing the Amalekite king (who he had been commanded by God to kill); in deviating one iota from God’s commands, Shaul HaMelech became, in the words of my rebbe, “a mass murderer”, and that was the first time I really learned that tzadikim in the Torah could be fallible.  All these memories, and I am lucky to say I had few or no “bad” teachers to spoil my educational experiences.  Others are not always so lucky.

In Judaism, who was our master teacher, and lead educator?  It was Moshe (Moses), and he is always referred to as Moshe Rabbeinu, Moshe Our Rabbi.

Moshe had been with the Jewish people for close to 40 years in the desert.  They had been through so much together, from the highest of the highs, to the lowest of the lows.  Moshe endured his fair share of vitriol, criticism and complaints, from what he taught, to his style of teaching and leadership, even the hot lunch program they had available in those times – Manna again?!  And yet, over all those years, the ways of Hashem and His Torah had been taught and shared daily, from the master teacher Moshe, to his students, the young and the old of the Jewish people.

Knowing he would not be continuing into the Land of Israel with them, Moshe delivered a number of key teachings to his students towards the end of their journey in the desert.  In this week’s parsha, Ki Tavoh (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8), it tells of how a few day before he passed away, Moshe asked everyone to gather around.

“And Moshe called to all Israel, and said to them:

You have seen all that God did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land. The great trials which your eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles.

Yet God has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this very day….

Keep the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do.”

The Rabbis were perplexed by this verse – Yet God has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this very day (29:3).  After all, the Jewish people had been exposed to Hashem and his miracles on a daily basis for forty years, and they had been learning Torah with their teacher and leader Moshe for the very same duration. Until this very day… Only now they finally get it?  Only now do they have the tools to be self-sufficient to head off into Israel, without Moshe?

The Talmud (Masechet Avodah Zarah, 5b) on this verse states:

This teaches us that a person does not comprehend the mind of his master until after forty years, and does not fully appreciate and integrate the teachings of his master until after forty years.

Moshe taught the Jews that it’s only after so many years of leadership that a student really understands the teacher.  That it takes a long time to really internalize what we are taught, to the point where we can revisit the past, the good and the bad, and integrate them with greater depth and personal meaning.  Forty is in and of itself significant. The Mishnah says that when a person turns forty, he acquires binah, understanding.  It’s not only that we learned to understand the content or develop the skills we were being taught, it’s that after many years we can finally understand and appreciate the way a teacher thinks and feels and in turn, we ultimately can become teachers ourselves.

I think it’s fair to say that we can all think back to the teachers we had when we were younger – how many memories do we have of things our teachers did in those years, which at the time, did not seem to make any sense or reason whatsoever!  As we have gotten older, often, we may say to ourselves, “Ahhhh, now I understand what he or she was doing.”

One final memory, and one major understanding:  My grade 4 Judaics teacher was an elderly Holocaust survivor, and a chassidic woman of Satmar lineage.  I was invited to her home for Shabbos one time that year, and I spent a really nice Shabbos with her and her husband.  They lived in a modest lower duplex, and Shabbos was quiet, and uneventful.  At school, my teacher was a formidable presence, tough as nails, and we wouldn’t dare cause trouble in her class.  In her home, I saw something else entirely.  That Friday night, in passing by her room on my way to my room to sleep, I saw her without her teaching armour – her teeth were on her nightstand, and her wig was off; her shaved head, common to some chassidic women, was briefly on display while she slipped on a tiechel (kerchief).  And who was she?  A human, a Jew of simple powerful faith, who had lived through so much, and suffered so much, who opened her home to a little Jewish boy so she could share a Shabbos experience with me.

I understand her now.

Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach.

Mar Abba

 

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