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Friday, June 22, 2018

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I read the piece written by Rabbi Yablok in your April 20 edition (“Striking a Balance in the Judaic Studies Classroom”) and, while I do not disagree with many of his points, I wanted to highlight a slightly different dimension in terms of the teacher’s role. While it is very nice to say that the teacher must keep the rigorous educational content intact and ensure that the student master skills and acquire knowledge, for a large chunk of the high school population, that should probably be a secondary goal. The charismatic teacher is often working in a direction which is completely unrelated to skill building or current pedagogical methodology. The challenge is often in keeping students open to the idea of becoming educated, an element which often makes the particulars of the curriculum irrelevant.

A high school teacher’s main goal, in my humble opinion, is to prepare the student to be a life-long learner. Being fixated on content will drive many students away and the teacher must work to keep students from choosing not to learn. While it is rewarding when students from years ago can come up to me and discuss a novel we read, the real truth is I don’t really care—I care that the student left the class not hating the subject so that when he matured into a student who was ready to learn, he was willing to do the work. Yes, I hope that he recalls the skills, but proper education spirals with themes, content and skills reappearing so that a teacher can hope that a specific lesson or skill will stick some other time. I don’t see the effort of the pied piper as 50 percent of the work of a teacher, balanced by a 50 percent focus on the facts and skills —I see that informal aspect as primary, even in many classrooms. The success of the teacher and school isn’t measured by a student who can recall what he learned, but by the student who can recall that he learned to love his educational experience. This doesn’t mean “all fun all the time” but it means that we might err on the side of inspiration. That a student earned an 88 and can recall, apply or synthesize is useless if the student no longer wants to.

Of course this is not a concern with all students; many are already motivated and excited and our classes and shiurim can be content-heavy and academically centered because these students value the schooling experience and share a vision of their endgame with us. And all of our teachers must be equipped and ready to present appropriate and challenging content and help students develop in their knowledge and understanding. But for a large chunk of our population, we might better view our instruction like the teachings of the angels before we are born—we are priming a pump so that when the student is exposed to the same ideas after his educational “birthing” they might resonate and find fertile and receptive ground. Not every class can be, or should be, a “model of high-level thinking” because what will set some students on that path of Torah is the personality of the teacher who modeled a life and a passion so that the student will choose to be a committed participant in his own growth as a thinker and member of his community.

I would rather have a student say “X is my favorite teacher because he made me look forward to coming to class” than “I remember that in X’s class we explained the following facts.” The former had an experience and gained more which will serve him in an educationally significant way than the latter.

Rabbi Daniel Rosen