14 November 2014
21 Marcheshvan 5775
At the end of Tuesday’s parent-teacher conferences, a teacher walked by my office. I called out to him, “How did it go?” He smiled., “Great day. I found out that my students find my classes challenging,” he said with pride.
“Of course,” he added, “I want my students to feel challenged in a good way. They shouldn’t feel crushed under the subject like it is a burden, but they should feel stretched to achieve more than they think they are capable of.”
The teacher then explained to me that often, in the high level math classes that he teaches, even very accomplished students bring fear and anxiety to their learning. “These emotions can make the learning experience unpleasant, of course,” the teacher explained. “And they also can negatively impact their performance as their mental and emotional energy shifts away from the learning itself.”
When I asked the teacher how he tries to address this, his response captured an essential element of great teaching. “Cheer them on, let them know that I know they can do it, that I believe in them.”
When discussing education, especially the teaching of advanced students, I find that beliefs about teaching and learning often reveal a learned dichotomy between challenge or academic rigor and nurture, care, and compassion. I once heard a principal advise new teachers not to smile until Thanksgiving in order to establish authority over their classes. My experience, however, has taught me the opposite. Teaching and learning are profoundly relational endeavors.
I am reminded of one of my favorite Talmudic stories about teaching and learning. Rabbi Perida had a pupil to whom he had to repeat his lesson four hundred times before he was able to learn it. One day Rabbi Perida was invited to a religious celebration; that day also Rabbi Perida kept repeating the lesson, but the student did not learn it. Rabbi Perida asked him: “What is different today?” The student responded: “The moment the master was told, ‘There is a religious celebration,’ my attention wandered, for I kept saying to myself, ‘the master is about to get up and leave, the master is about to get up and leave. . .’” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 54b)
The story concludes with a happy ending, which we can analyze from many angles. What I always find most profound, however, is the student’s explanation of why he is not learning: “I kept saying to myself, ‘the master is about to get up and leave.’” This moment brings tears to my eyes. Something happened to the student’s capacity to learn, to his confidence, to his will, the moment he began to doubt his teacher’s investment in him.
We can employ cutting edge pedagogies, and we can challenge students to push themselves to pursue excellence—and we do. Yet, the care and trust of a teacher-student relationship are the foundation upon which great learning happens. When students know and feel that their teachers care about them and believe in them, they actually will push themselves harder and achieve more.
This balance between challenge and nurture was captured in my teacher’s “Great day.”
Rabbi Marc Baker