As graduation speeches and flying caps fill the air, we may wonder about the extent and duration of the influence that schools and individual teachers may have on students, both in knowledge and character. Rabbis in the past and present have given plenty of advice about how to teach. In Judaism, learning is a cradle to grave affair. Furthermore, a basic principle is that Torah needs to be a source of wisdom and dedication- not just information. Many sages talk about education and begin their writings with the verse from Proverbs: ‘Chanoch L’naar al pi Darko- educate the child according to his way, and even when aging he will not stray from it.’ Part of this idea is not to overload the student with more information than the student can handle and assimilate at any given stage, but at the same time not to be content with what is achieved at any given stage.
There is a well-known guidance directive from Maimonides about a motivational reward system for different stages of learning Torah. The process is giving rewards according to the age and interest of the student. For example, sweets to the youngest, then toys, then prizes and then special recognition. This system is based on the Talmudic premise, ‘one should learn Torah even if not for the highest motive, because eventually one will arrive at the purest form of learning for the joy of the mitzvah itself.’
The Piesetzner Rebbe in the Warsaw ghetto wrote a deep book called Chovas HaTalmidim- the Obligation of the Students- with talks to his students. A key principle he presents is that the word Chinuch which means education, comes from a word which implies bringing out rather than putting in. In other words, it’s about actualizing the student’s unique inner potential, rather than pouring in information. Techniques for imparting the latter are certainly helpful and important, but they are peripheral to ‘the making of a mensch.’ Both the Baal Shem Tov and the Vilna Gaon told us that it is harder to improve one character trait of a person than to learn through all of Talmud. Among so many other things, the Baal Shem Tov suggested that even a full time Talmud student should stop each hour or so to think about G-d and our relationship to the divine.
If a teacher’s job were merely feeding information, it would end at a finite point. However, if the job included character building, it would continue indefinitely, even to the extent of praying for the students even when they were no longer in physical proximity. The Torah’s perspective is that the attitude of the most dedicated teachers should not be the exception, but rather the rule. On the verse, ‘V’shinantam L’vanecha’- you should teach your children, the sages say, ‘these are your students.’ In these few words, the sages are spelling out the equation: Treat your students as if they were your children. The most successful teachers are not of the 8 to 3 variety, even if their homework is not about grading papers.
The secular world too has adopted some of these values. There are many inspiring school movies out there, and a common bond is the dedication of the teachers, above and beyond their hours in school. The work is not easy but it is fulfilling and often involves extra time, spending personal funds, disappointments, and sometimes even family breakups. The satisfaction comes from realizing that the impact is forever. Two movies based on true events that express this dedication are “Freedom Writers” and the “Ron Clark Story.” In the first a determined young woman and in the second a strongminded man, both take on inner city classes with fortitude and grit.
Ron Clark was a seasoned elementary teacher in North Carolina, whose specialty was innovative teaching methods that could raise test scores. He wanted a more challenging job so he moved to Harlem, and insisted on tackling the lowest scoring sixth grade class in Harlem elementary. Before he could begin to teach them anything, he had to tame their rowdiness and resistance to school, and get them to first sit still and pay attention. He made them form a line even for lunch, and if anyone disrupted, the whole class would have to wait, since his first rule was ‘We are Family.’ He turned around the sassiest girl to become the class leader and model for achievement. Eventually, they settled down and became the highest scorers on their level in New York City.
His forte was a strong blend of Gevurah and Chesed – discipline and love. It had to be in that order because that class had failed to maintain six teachers in just half a year. Just getting them to sit quietly was a major accomplishment, and the classroom itself was vandalized several times before he could get their attention. He did it kind of like training animals- they had to line up quietly before they could go to lunch. Ron anticipated the least manageable of the students by telling the cook not to let anyone who would try to sneak in the lunchroom. He got their attention by seemingly juvenile ways. Once when he was trying to teach them grammar, he lined his desk with a whole slew of little milk cartons, and said he would drink one every fifteen seconds if they were quiet while he taught. Hoping they would see him puke, they indeed made sure each other would be quiet. He tried connecting with them by learning to play double-dutch jump rope and fell flat on his back before he picked it up. Most importantly, he got them to write a journal of their daily dreams and aspirations.
In “Freedom Writers,” Erin Gruwell was a young, first time teacher who accepted a position teaching freshman English at Woodrow Wilson High in Long Beach, California. Her class was a mixture of Hispanics, blacks, Asians, and one white boy. Most of them belonged to gangs and acted out with hostility to those perceived as ‘other’ even in the classroom. One day, one of the Hispanic boys drew a picture of a black kid with big lips. Erin grabbed the picture and began to explain to them about how the Holocaust started with such pictures about Jews. Most of the kids never even heard about the Holocaust, so Erin tried to explain by making parallels to their gangs till they started to get an inkling about the horrors of racism.
What did this young, enthusiastic but inexperienced teacher do? First and foremost, she, like Ron Clark, had them write in a daily journal. They could write whatever they wanted and it would be totally private unless the student wanted it to be read. This ‘simple’ activity got them in touch with the thoughts and feelings going on inside themselves rather than focus exclusively on the drama and frequent violence around them. Furthermore, she got them to realize that above and beyond their different ethnic groupings, they had much more in common than not.
She then took them to the Holocaust museum where they were profoundly moved. While their ears and hearts were open, she had them read Anne Frank, and from there, they developed an interest in literature. They even raised their own money to bring Miep Gies, who hid Ann Frank, to the USA to speak to them. Erin and the class continue to bond with her and among themselves, till she ends up teaching them throughout high school. When one formerly negative African American student escorted Ms. Gies in, he said to her, ‘you are my hero.’ She countered, ‘No, all of you are my heroes.’ She had read the students’ personal accounts that, like Anne Frank’s diary, described their daily challenges, and saw their determination to make their lives better.
Despite the differences, there are many common features between the above two movies. The most critical is that the students learned to unite and form a bond with each other, even in their flaws and deficiencies. Above all, they were willing to grow because they trusted, respected, and eventually loved their teachers. Another similarity, as mentioned, is that both teachers had their students keep a personal diary or journal. For perhaps the first time in their lives, they were asked to share and express their feelings without inhibitions to someone who they had learned really cared about what they thought and felt.
The Talmud is replete with stories of teachers’ remarkable dedication: R. Preida in Tractate Eruvin 54b used to teach one student 400 times till he understood the material. Once the rabbi had to go somewhere right after the lesson and the student sensed his teacher was distracted for the first hundred times, and said he couldn’t concentrate. So the patient teacher agreed to teach the same lesson another 400 times. His sensitivity and commitment came through not just by his patience, but by considering what he needed to do differently rather than by being judgmental about the student. As a result, a voice came from heaven making Rav Preida an offer: ‘As a reward for your efforts, you can choose to live for 400 years, or a place in the world to come for you and your entire generation.’ Rav Preida chose the latter rather than his own life extension in this world. However G-d commanded the angels to give him both!
Rabbi Chiya was another completely devoted teacher who engaged in each step of Sefer Torah preparation between planting flax and making net for trapping deer to writing the five books of torah and six books of the Mishnah on deer skin. He then taught five boys each a separate book of Torah and then six books of Mishnah, and had them teach the book they learned to each other. He represents not just a full on personal commitment to teaching, but also the significance of insuring that the Torah be perpetuated through the generations.
In Pirkei Avot we read about four types of students- one who learns quickly but forgets quickly, one who learns slowly but forgets slowly, one who learns slowly and forgets slowly and one who learns quickly and forgets slowly. Pirkei Avot is not meant as a psychological typology, so what do we learn from this categorical division? One lesson is meant for teachers, that they have a mandate to deal with each kind of learner, and not to dismiss any student when they don’t seem to learn easily. There is also a listing of types of students according to their retention capacity: a sponge, a funnel, a strainer, and a sieve. One interesting commentary refers these types also to the teacher. This perspective somewhat levels the field. If the teachers can recognize their own strengths and weaknesses, they can better appreciate the nature of their students. The gap between the transmitter and the receiver then becomes shortened and teacher and student can then relate and learn more easily from each other, similar to the teachers in both films who gained so much by the bond with their students.
When I was once teaching the second grade, one of the girl’s families moved to Israel. I wrote her to ask how she was doing and she answered something like: ‘Our family is fine but school is kind of boring. All the teachers do is talk, talk, talk, and all we do is write, write, write, without any discussion like we used to have in our class.’ This was around the sixties so hopefully the methods in Israel have been upgraded.
The other very important aspect that the two teachers in the films had in common is that they went beyond the requirements of their formal contract. They spent their own money, put in extra time to plan projects, and most importantly, to have private conversations with individual students. In schools across time and across the world, students will insist that their most memorable teachers were the ones that had just the right balance between discipline and genuine care and love. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once wrote that teachers, even in their elder years should not feel lonely, because they gave a gift that keeps on giving. In a sense teachers earn ‘royalty’ from each student who because of the teacher’s influence, continues to ‘pay it forward.’
Changing lives for the better-both individually and collectively, is both straightforward and miraculous. Parents and teachers and clergy folk have done it, as well as good friends and even strangers. The impact lies in the intentions and positive words of ‘the supporting cast’ of people in our lives. Turning conflicts into peaceful resolutions is one of the highest goals we can achieve, and it’s one that can be infectious. Furthermore, it can be a model for others to emulate. Paying it forward is an incredible side benefit of using peaceful words for creating trust, security, contentment, and harmony. We learn in Pirkei Avot, ‘Be like the students of Aaron: Love peace, and pursue peace’ There is so much good advice in this pithy saying. First of all one must truly care about those with whom you attempt to mediate-Love peace. Secondly, you must be ready to leave your comfort zone to engage in this holy quest- Pursue peace.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote a letter to the United States government quoting a midrashic source about when many people passed away in the early years in the times of Joshua, of entering the land of Israel. The Midrash said it was a retaliation for the government not leaving their location in the holy grounds of the Temple to go out and educate the people who lived in the peripheries. The Rebbe stressed that the purpose of a group, even one as sacred as the Sanhedrin, is subordinate to the needs, both material and spiritual, of each individual. From the Rebbe’s educational pleas, came about the formal founding of the annual Education Day on the Rebbe’s birthday on the eleventh of Nisan.
There is a story from the first Chabad Rebbe when his grandson was a baby and the father, the second rebbe was supposed to be watching the baby but was deeply immersed in learning Torah. The baby fell out of his crib but the father didn’t hear. The grandfather however did, and chastised his son for not paying attention. He said, ‘even when learning Torah, one must never forget to hear the cry of a child.’
Perhaps tossing graduation caps into the air can remind us that the goal in filling students minds is to help them come closer to emulating G-d in the way the sages explicate the verse- to Him you should cleave: just as He is compassionate, so should you be. In order to fulfill this mandate, the teacher also needs to continually strive for this goal. And if we are all teachers in one way or another, we should all resist any stagnant complacency but rather look up to the heavens and strive higher and higher. There is a Yiddish story by the famed writer Peretz about a rabbi who used to sneak out during the ten days of penitence wearing peasants’ clothing. He would go into the forest and chop down wood to warm the homes of the poor. Peretz called the story ‘If not Higher.’ As a Hassidic adage goes, ‘if learning Torah is such an important value, how much more so is striving to become a living Torah.
A Jewish creator of superheroes and Marvel movies, Stan Lee, would end his Twitter page with one word: Excelsior! It is a Latin word that means ‘still higher.’ In Judaism, excelsior implies dedication to the One who is beyond both earth and heaven. From that perspective, no act of kindness and caring for another is too big or too small to fall outside the purview of ‘Walking in His Ways.’ Since we are all teachers in one form or another, may our guiding words inspire both the minds and the hearts of our listeners, to in turn inspire others till the coming of Mashiach when the whole world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as water fills the sea.