If you are a teacher, whether you are a classroom teacher, or a mentor or a tutor, or a coach, or a rabbi, whether you are currently teaching or retired , whether you are full-time or part-time, even if you are teaching only one course a year at Stevenson University in forensic accounting, please stand up. Thank you.
The NEA, National Education Association, has designated next Tuesday, May 8th, as Teacher Appreciation Day, so it’s appropriate that today, on the Sabbath before that occasion, as a community, we say thank you to our teachers.
As every student of Judaism knows, our tradition places great emphasis on the importance of education, and on the importance of teachers. In the ethical treatise entitled, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, we learn “The honor of your student should be as precious to you as your own honor. The honor of your friend like the honor of your teacher, and the honor of your teacher like the honor of Heaven.”
Another teaching from our tradition-
“Just as one is obligated to honor and revere his father, one is likewise obligated to honor and revere his teacher. In fact, one must honor and revere a teacher even more than one does his father. This is because one’s father brings him into life in this world, but one’s teacher imparts wisdom and brings him into life in the world to come.
There is no level of honor and reverence greater than that we must show our teachers.”
So, take a moment and reflect on that teacher who has had the greatest impact on your life.
What is it that makes that teacher stand out? Was it his or her concern for you as an individual? Was it his or her warmth, kindness, brilliance, insight?
Turn to the person next to you, or in front of you or behind you, or if you are sitting by yourself, get up and join another congregant and take a few minutes and share your favorite teacher stories.
OK, come back everyone. You can continue your conversations at lunch.
How many of you chose a pre-school or elementary school teacher? Raise your hand, please. A high school teacher? A college or graduate school instructor? A non-classroom teacher, like a mentor or a coach?
This year our Krieger Schechter Day School is celebrating its 36th anniversary. Mazal tov! I remember when the school was celebrating its 18th anniversary, and designated a Sabbath as KSDS Shabbat. Our graduate, Gilad Foss, was the entertainment for that evening. How many of you were there at that time?
All of the rooms in the synagogue were set up for the High Holy Days, so we rented a large tent, and set it up in the playground area. Before Shabbat dinner, we invited all of our graduates to reflect on that place in the building that was the most significant to them during their Schechter years, and to go to that place and to sit there. As you can imagine, some sat outside of the science classrooms, and some outside of music or art. Some students were outside the Judaic Studies rooms, some outside of the Hebrew classrooms, and some outside the gym.
As I walked to the Chapel, there were a group of students sitting outside of the Accounting office.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Dr. Schneider, this room used to be the Kindergarten, and for us, that was the most important year of our education.”
Remember,”All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten.”
One of my first jobs as a teacher was for a tenth grade confirmation class in suburban New Jersey. Like all rabbinical school students, I needed to make some money, so I taught. And like all rabbinical school students, I knew nothing about teaching.
The principal gave me a book by Danny Siegel, the Pied Piper of Tzedekah, and said, “Go teach.”
This is what I remember. That was one tough class. After every session, I would say to myself, “Draperies. I should have gone into my father’s drapery business.”
And then there was that magic night. I began as I always did, entering the room reciting to myself the 23rd Psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for Thou art with me.”
I handed out Danny Siegel’s book, and I asked the students to turn to the dedication. Some of Danny’s books were dedicated to his father, and some to his mother.
The dedication in this book read, “To my teachers.” I asked each student to talk about the most important teacher in his/her life.
How do you think they answered my question?
Every one of the 18 students in my class told the same story.
Every one of these banditten, lovely students, spoke about a strict teacher who made demands, made them re-write papers, didn’t accept shoddy work. What an eye opener for me! That was my first successful lesson, for the students and for me!
I thought of the maxim in Pirkei Avot–
“Much have I learned from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but most of all from my students.”
What’s interesting is that that lesson was taught to me again and again.
After I was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and completed my course work for my doctorate in educational administration, I took a position as Assistant Rabbi in Charge of Education at a large congregation in Los Angeles. I was off on Fridays, so I decided to teach a Talmud class in a local day school. I had high school seniors.
Now, wouldn’t you think that high school seniors would want to take the easiest classes available? I mean, what’s senioritis all about if not coasting through that last year?
On the first day of class, the first student who entered the classroom introduced himself to me and begged me to make the class challenging. “Please,” he said, “Make this class hard.” Many of the other students followed suit.
Years later, here in Baltimore, I remember a conversation that I had with a Schechter alumnus who did very well, got into great schools, fabulous SATs.
He wanted to tell me about his single most important academic experience at Schechter. He had Rabbi Tobin for Rabbinics. How many of you remember Rabbi Rob Tobin? For the first time in his academic career, Noah did not receive an A.
“What’s wrong with Rabbi Tobin?” Noah must have said to himself. “Doesn’t he know that I get A’s? Didn’t Dr. Schneider prep him? Who does he think he is?”
Apparently, Rabbi Tobin had the chutzpah to have him rewrite his paper, not once, but twice. And he learned that the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher is that a great teacher pushes you to work harder, think clearer and write at a higher level. And that was the most important lesson he learned at Schechter.
So, what about self-esteem? If you’re going to teach anything, shouldn’t it be self-esteem? What could be more important than a child feeling good about him or herself?
Many years ago, when Schechter was young, and I was the headmaster, I remember a mom coming to see me. She was very angry.
“You have a problem here in this school,” she said.
“Please sit down and tell me what’s on your mind,” I replied.
“It’s my son’s report card. It’s unacceptable. For me and my husband, nothing is more important than our son’s self esteem. Now, we pay a lot of money for tuition. We expect our son to receive all As on every report card. In fact, we insist on it.”
What she wanted to buy, we weren’t selling.
I said to her that we loved her child, and that we appreciated their tuition dollars, but that we were not prepared to adopt her educational philosophy, and that I thought it unlikely that she and her husband would find a school to their liking.
If you want a child to feel good about him or herself, it’s not an all A report card that does it. It’s competency. A child who is competent will feel very good about his or her academic achievement, and will have great self-esteem.
Two weeks ago, Gary Attman, a past president of Chizuk Amuno, and currently Treasurer of the University of Maryland System’s Board, shared with me a report that he had received from the Chair of the K-12 Education Commission.
It showed, among other things, that despite the presence of many excellent teachers and many excellent schools, Maryland public schools significantly underperform on measures of student learning. Likewise, the United States, when measured against other countries on PISA scores, The Program for International Assessment, is only in the middle of the pack. There’s work to be done.
About ten years ago, in another study, I remember an article that showed that out of 34 countries, students in the United States placed 25th when it came to math achievement.
However, when it came to how they felt about their math achievement, I’m pleased to inform you that youngsters in the US placed first!!
Isn’t that wonderful! Our students scored below Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Japan, Canada, Australia, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Iceland, France, Estonia, Sweden, The UK, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Ireland and Lithuania, and they felt great.
It’s not easy to be a teacher. Yes, you need to teach competency in your subject-area, but you also need to teach responsibility, civility, teamwork and kindness, and if you are in a value-based educational setting, like a Jewish school, you need to model those values day in and day out.
But the rewards are great. Listen to this line from the words of Yehuda Amichai, an Israeli poet.
“A child is something else again… A child is a missile into the coming generation. I launch him. I’m still trembling.”
In other words, teachers touch the face of eternity.
During his interview weekend with us, our new rabbi, Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg, shared that the writings of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, are a source of tremendous inspiration to him.
I conclude this morning with what is reputed to be one of Rabbi Heschel’s favorite stories.
A young man once wanted to become a blacksmith. So, he became an apprentice to a blacksmith, and he learned all the necessary techniques of the trade: how to hold the tongs, how to lift the sledge, how to smite the anvil, even how to blow the fire with the bellows. Having finished his apprenticeship, he was chosen to be employed at the smithy of the royal palace.
However, the young man’s delight soon came to an end when he discovered that he had failed to learn how to kindle a speak. All of his skill and knowledge in handling the tools were of no avail.
May we and our children, and our children’s children, be blessed with teachers who kindle a spark within us. Amen.