What I Learned in My First 2000 Days of Teaching

In honor of my 1000th day of teaching, shortly before the end of my 6th year of teaching, I made the daily announcements for my school over the intercom (a lifelong dream) and brought in treats for my students. I never envisioned that my 2000th day, which is sometime around now, would be spent at home teaching over Zoom. I am somewhat more limited in my options for celebrating the occasion with my students, but I have decided to use the opportunity to reflect on the most important things I have learned over my twelve years in the classroom, and to share those reflections with others. In that vein, I invite you to enjoy the hard-earned fruits of my labor.

I dedicate this post to the leadership team that guided me in my first years of teaching – my first Head of School, Lower and High School principals, the school Administrator, the Secretary, and my mentor; and to my initial group of students who were unnaturally patient as I learned the ropes. Truly, לֶכְתֵּך אַחַרַי בַּמִדְבָּר בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה.

Here, then, are the top five lessons I have learned in my first 2,000 days of teaching.

1) Don’t project the end of the story. “Begin with the end in mind” is a common mantra in education today, but it applies curricularly, not personally. When it comes to the children themselves, we don’t know the end of the story. Children at every age, including the middle school set with which I have spent most of my career, are in a constant state of flux, trying out new personalities regularly. It can be the strength of a deliberate teacher to help them discover who they want to be and encourage them at every stage of this growth. Likewise, it is a liability of the lazy teacher to inhibit their students’ growth by viewing them only through the lens of their family upbringing or what interested (or disinterested) them yesterday. I have learned to resist the urge to categorize students religiously, academically, or psychologically into neat subsets. I remember a parent-teacher conference in which a student’s parents expressed their frustration that their child was not interested in his religious studies or in his Judaism more generally. I told them that I was surprised to hear this because he often followed me out of the room after class, asking follow-up questions about what we had learned or about Judaism in general. They were pleasantly surprised to hear that, because they had only seen him in one context. He did not feel comfortable with his Judaism in the context of his home or in his Shul, but that didn’t change the fact that within a certain boundary he felt comfortable with it. We are all that way to some extent or another – I have seen mourners who would never miss Minyan, unless it means stepping foot in a Shul which does not look exactly like their own – but we view our own students or children more rigidly, as finished products. I was once speaking to my Head of School about the idiosyncrasies of some of the students, and I had to laugh and point out that the conversation sounded as if they are finished products and can never change. They can change, and they do change, often more rapidly than we do (which may be why we fail to remember it when thinking about them).

2) Teaching is planting, not only building. Rav Shlomo Wolbe, in his slim but pivotal tract “זריעה ובנין בחינוך,” lays out a foundation for education based on the two ways in which Hashem made the world: planting and building. Rav Wolbe takes as a paradigm for this the opening words of Mesillat Yesharim: “יסוד החסידות ושורש העבודה,” “The foundation of piety and the root of service.” Piety (חסידות) requires a foundation (יסוד) – something concrete (literally and figuratively) that is added by others so that the building can be built over time. Service of Hashem (עבודה) requires establishing roots (שורש), a process whereby the planted seed can continue to grow on its own even without outside interference. Both of these are necessary in education, but we tend to emphasize the first and neglect the second. This was a lesson I could only learn over time. I have now seen many former students who are quite religiously committed, notwithstanding that by all outward appearances they had not seemed to be inculcating the messages which I was endeavoring to impart when they were in my classroom. I once remarked to one of them, by then in high school, that I was inspired by his beautiful Davening. He remarked that he had been inspired by a series of daily speeches I had given about Davening when he was in middle school. I laughed to myself: On any day that he hadn’t slept through those speeches, sitting in the back of the room, he had been snickering with his friends! I had made the mistake of viewing him at that early stage through the lens of בנין, building, believing that it was my job to construct the building, and that I was failing in that regard. Yet as is so often the case with any act of זריעה, planting, the roots were there, making their impact, growing organically even before the evidence was there to prove it, and they would be there to bear fruit as he grew older. It is often said that post-high school American Yeshivot and seminaries save their students who were failed by their high schools. This is incorrect. If not for the ideas that were planted in the earlier stages of their education, the progress made in that year abroad could never come about. In reality, it is then that the seeds planted earlier take root and begin to grow. Many teachers feel discouraged – some even leave the profession – because the lack of immediately tangible results leads them to believe they have made little progress with their students. I spoke to one such teacher several months ago, who left after one year because he “could not make the students want to learn.” How sad! By the time each of these teachers leaves the field, they have already made a far bigger impact than they believed through the seeds which they had planted, and that impact could have grown over time if they had stuck around and planted even more seeds.

3) Embrace your role as a facilitator. At the end of my first year of teaching, I received a handwritten card from a 6th grade student. I always treasure these notes, and I still have this one, even though (or perhaps because) it was not the message I would have most wanted to hear. It said, “Dear Rabbi Zalesch, Thank you so much for teaching me this year. I know a lot more than I did a year ago, and I know it because you taught it to me.” Although the student of course meant no harm, the card gave me pause for how perfect an encapsulation it was of what I try not to do in the classroom. The role of a teacher is to be a facilitator, guiding them to find answers on their own. I have always viewed it as a form of stealing to jump in any amount too early and take away the opportunity that a student would otherwise have to figure something out on their own. I take it as a welcome and ongoing challenge to determine how to provide just the right amount of scaffolding to allow him or her to reach the finish line on their own – not so much help that they have been inhibited from achieving a certain degree of independent thought, and not so little that they still cannot get there despite my assistance. This requires not only a great deal of patience but also all types of knowledge working in tandem during every interaction – what each learner is capable of, the degree of difficulty of the assignment, how much resilience the learner seems to have that day, just to name a few. Of course you will often get push-back on this from the students, but as I tell them when they seem to want too much help or information, “It’s your education, not mine. I already passed this class.” I once overheard two of my colleagues talking, one of them frustrated that his students had done poorly on a test. “I don’t understand why they did poorly,” he said. “I literally spoon-fed them all of the answers the day before the test!” I resisted the urge to inject myself into their conversation, but I would have said that he had answered his own question. Spoon-feeding is not only poor pedagogic form, as it is largely ineffective in imprinting the information on the brain, but it stifles the student’s longer-term chance to view himself as an independently capable learner. It is not our job to be a repository of wisdom or information, but to be a craftsman, slowly chiseling a unique product that can already, to a greater degree than the day before, carry on learning independently. That should be the goal of every learning-based interaction that we have with our students. I once arrived at a back-to-school picnic, and the volunteer at the welcoming table asked what I wanted my sticker to say. I asked for “Facilitator of inquiry and discovery by independent learners.” We settled on “teacher.” (I don’t know why she had asked.) We may not be able to convince the world, but each teacher should endeavor to view herself or himself as a facilitator of learning that is primarily at the control of the learners under our charge.

4) Leave room in the lesson plan for the learner. A friend of mine once visited my community to audition for a Rabbinic position. While he was in town, he also gave a class to my middle school students. I asked him later that evening how he thought it had gone. He expressed to me that he found classroom teaching difficult. “How do you handle it,” he asked me, “when a student derails you from your expected path through the material by giving his own, original take? How do you end up staying on course and supplying your perspective when the students want to offer their own?” The question took me by surprise because, to my mind, if a student is engaged and able-minded enough to develop their own original perspective, so much the better; indeed that is the ultimate goal. A lesson should not be planned so rigidly that the learner’s own way of thinking about the material cannot factor into the final result. It is said that Rav Soloveitchik would change the conclusion of his Shiur on a dime if a student had successfully challenged his way of thinking about the topic; there is a story that he once appeared in the cafeteria during lunch to track down a student and tell him that he had been correct in his conclusion which was originally rejected by Rav Soloveitchik during class. We should have no less humility than this giant of Torah learning. Moreover, this is as true on an intellectual level as it is on a pedagogic one. I had a colleague who struggled in the classroom and left teaching after only one year. I tried pointing out to him that the classes he was designing and giving to middle school students were really adult education classes. We talked about Shoresh lists, allowing them time to translate independently, and working collaboratively, but he could not conceive of his students being engaged by a different style of presentation than he or his adult friends would want to attend on a Shabbat afternoon. He was espousing the intellectual equivalent of, if I can’t conceive of eating dog food, why would I feed it to my dog? Certainly our job is to raise the level of thinking of even our youngest students, and we may at times reach the level of adult learners even in younger grades, but this is a destination, not a vehicle. The means of presentation should best reflect the developing brain of our students at its current stage, rightly resulting in a very different set of expectations and methods than that in which we would appreciate being involved ourselves. I was surprised in my early years to find that my students were not bored by translating Pesukim independently. Far from it. They looked at their swelling notebooks with pride and reveled in the accomplishment of the rapidly increasing speed of their work. I have learned to incorporate games and projects which are only too welcomed by the students. There is a deception that because middle school students can (and must!) engage in higher-order thinking and in some cases can engage in a conversation with adults on the level of a peer, all of their interests and intellectual capacity have fully matured and they want little to do with rudimentary exercises or basic skills. This is not so. As I tried to explain to that colleague, give them the class that they need to attend, not the one you would want to attend. I have attended several conferences featuring Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, a well-regarded leader in the educational field, and she always leaves an empty chair next to her on the stage. She explains that this chair represents the average learner whom we must bear in mind as we go about our work discussing educational theory. I have taken to having such a chair next to me as well when I plan lessons in my house at night. We should make educational decisions bearing in mind who our learners are and what they need, as opposed to what makes us stimulated to plan.

5) Never stop learning. We began this post discussing the malleability of the early adolescent brain; we will end it by considering that of the teacher’s. I was once speaking to a colleague, a fabulous and well-respected young 3rd grade General Studies teacher who was leaving the field at the end of the year. I remarked to her that I was surprised she was leaving, and she responded that she had grown tired of the job. She marveled at how I stay fresh every year and still seem to be excited by my job when it is essentially the same every year. “True,” she continued, “the kids come and go, but the material never changes.” As I have thought about that conversation since then, what has occurred to me is that whether the job is the same every year is truly a matter of perspective. I was privileged to start my teaching career under the leadership of a principal who by then was far from a spring chicken but who nevertheless always approached her job – and encouraged us to approach ours – with a constant sense of newness. She would burst into in-service meetings every August breathlessly excited to tell us about the revolutionary new methodology that is going to change education forever and which we are going to adapt immediately in our school. One year it was Rubrics, the next year Understanding by Design, then it was Thinking Maps, then Standards-Based Reporting, then Blended Learning. We would all spend the next week learning about this new method and commit to adapting it in our classrooms, and we would return to it at Professional Development sessions throughout the year. We smiled cynically at her indefatigable exuberance – wasn’t last year’s innovation the one that was going to change everything forever? – but as my own years in the field pile up, I am ever more impressed by her ability to constantly stay fresh by trying new things rather than resting on her laurels, or letting us rest on ours. Long after she had reached the point in her career when she could have accepted a set of beliefs and gone on cruise control for the remainder of her career, she still spent her summers reading, attending conferences, and inculcating the latest best practices, and the rest of her year passing them along to us. As veteran teachers, we have the choice to retain our own youthful energy by keeping an eye on the latest literature and incorporating any number of new ideas and methods into our work. This year I took a training course on using Sefaria in the classroom; last year I learned how to record and utilize videos in lessons (and as preparation for lessons by the students). As it happens, these two skills have been critical to the work I have done since we left the school building due to the Coronavirus, but they were not purely utilitarian when I learned them. They were enhancements which kept me engaged in my work, which in turns feeds to the students who are happier as a result. A teacher is a CEO of a very small company, with freedom to design and execute the overall game-plan designed by the office staff in whatever way he or she would like. Teachers who harness that creativity, admit and account for their vulnerabilities, and tap into their inner hunger to learn and experiment with new ideas are infinitely enriched for their labors and are less likely to become disenfranchised with their work. To steal from a different context, חדש ימינו כקדם; may our days of teaching always be renewed to allow them to mirror the original ones. May my work and that of all of my colleagues in this blessed and noble field continue in health and contentedness, and may we be privileged to carry on our work with such a spirit of vigor and freshness well into the future.

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