Before we started the new synagogue school year, I had a million ideas for how to improve my teaching – lessons learned from my two years of teaching synagogue school so far, and from reading and googling, and from my online Hebrew classes and virtual tours of Israel. I had too many ideas to fit into the few hours a week that I would get with my students.
I wanted them to learn more about Jewish history than the Holocaust: like the Babylonian Exile in 587 BCE and how it taught the ancient Israelites that they could bring God with them wherever they went; like the transition to Rabbinic Judaism, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when all seemed lost without the Temple, and yet the rabbis found a way forward by canonizing the Hebrew Bible and continuing the traditions in study and prayer and laws and customs; like the Spanish Inquisition and the forced conversions and the massacres and endless exiles of the Jews from one European country after another that spread the Jews around the world, where they were able to learn from different cultures and bring the world’s customs into Judaism; to Modern Israel, where Jews from around the world have been able to make a home and attempt to blend different cultures and races and customs and foods into one country; to modern antisemitism, and antizionism, and conflicts between Jews and Palestinians, and conflicts between different branches of Judaism. There’s so much for them to know!
And I wanted them to have a sense of what’s in the Hebrew Bible, and that they have a right to question any and everything in it, and I wanted them to be able to sound out Hebrew words, and begin to understand Hebrew when they heard it, and begin to build a love for the language. I wanted them to be familiar with the prayers, but more than that, I wanted them to feel empowered to create their own prayers and to know that their own thoughts are just as valuable as those of the rabbis who wrote our prayer books. And I wanted them to have fun and make friends and be silly and feel like part of a community that embraces them as they are.
My first in-person day of Synagogue School, back in September, was a bit chaotic, but not terrible. We were in a nursery school classroom, because our space was being used for the High Holiday services, so I told myself that any excess difficulty I was having with the kids came from being in a crowded space, with too many toys (there’s something about toys meant for younger kids that makes the older kids lose their minds). I also had thirteen students, with more boys than girls for the first time, and when I told people that I had a boy-heavy class this year they looked horrified and said things like, better you than me. But the boys I had in my class last year were wonderful; they were thoughtful, and creative, and kind, so I thought that if even a few of this year’s boys were anything like last year’s I would be very happy. I wasn’t too worried.
And during the break from in-person classes we continued to have zoom classes, which went really well. I was a little bit nervous about going back to in-person classes after a three week break, especially because we’d be returning to our regular “classroom” in the social hall, but I still thought everything would be okay.
The kids dribbled in one or two at a time for our second in-person class, in October, so we got a sort of relaxed start to class, but as time passed and more kids showed up I realized I’d forgotten how hard it is to hear in the social hall, and how much space there is for the kids to get into trouble. And I was at sea. The kids were screaming and wandering around and struggling to concentrate on the lesson. But I still wanted to believe that it was the fault of the room, and the long break between in-person classes, and that it would get better on its own.
I had a short break from my class, to teach an elective to my students from last year, and then I walked back into my classroom and I saw my students sitting calmly and listening to the teacher who had been working with them for the past half hour, handling the same exact kids with the same exact problems; and I suddenly realized that the problem was me.
After I got over the humiliation, somewhat, I emailed the teacher who had performed this miracle, and asked for her help. And she was wonderful. She’s been teaching for a long time, both in Synagogue School and before that in regular school, and she said, first and foremost you need to create structure in the classroom so that the kids can feel safe. She said, they need to know what’s expected from them, or else the world feels chaotic and they don’t know what to do. Kids don’t come pre-programmed, they need help building the skills to stay focused and be kind to each other, and to me.
The master teacher calmed me as successfully as she had calmed my students, setting clear guidelines for what I needed to do, and explaining the reasons for each behavior, and helping me problem solve different situations while firmly sticking to her overall goal: create structure so the kids know what’s expected of them.
But it’s hard. I tend to take everything the kids say to heart. When they tell me they’d rather be anywhere than in synagogue school, I think it’s my fault, because I’m boring. And when they can’t sit still, I feel like I’m evil for making them sit instead of letting them run around. When they drag their feet through an activity, or want to always do something else, I take that as a sign that I’m teaching the wrong things, rather than that they need some reinforcement that the lesson I’m teaching is worth their time.
So now I am starting again; not from scratch though. I need to remind myself that I am the adult in the room and I actually do know what to do, even when the kids tell me that I don’t. And I need to remind myself that structure and discipline do not equal abuse or squashing of potential, if done with careful intention and empathy. But most of all, I need to keep reminding myself that I cannot be perfect and it’s not even required. I can make mistakes and learn from them, and I can choose what to teach, based on what matters to me and what I’m good at, and that doesn’t make me a meanie or a bad teacher.
And maybe that’s one of the best lessons I can teach my students; that we don’t have to do everything and be everything and learn everything right away, or ever. We can each be our own imperfect selves and, maybe together, as a whole, we can get where we want to go.
With all of my hopes at the beginning of the school year for what I could teach the kids, I think if I could teach them that they are enough as they are, that would be enough. But first I have to learn it myself.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?