9 Sept 2011
10 Elul 577
In last Saturday’s New York Times Charles M. Blow’s editorial “In Honor of Teachers” pays tribute to a teacher who changed his life. “As a young child,” Blow writes, “I began to grow invisible. My teachers didn’t seem to see me nor I them.” He was a low performer because of his teachers’ lack of belief in him, as he “began to live down to their expectations.”
Eventually, Blow transferred schools and, in his words, “there I was, a little nothing of a boy, lost and slumped, flickering in and out of being.” Then he was placed in Mrs. Thomas’s fourth grade class. On the first day of class, she responded to him with a “broad approving smile, and the kind of eyes that warmed you on the inside.” For Blow, “It was the first time that I felt a teacher cared about me, saw me or believed in me. It lit a fire in me.” He goes on to attribute his future academic success to his relationship with Mrs. Thomas, for “. . . I figured that Mrs. Thomas would always be able to see me if I shined.”
This beautiful tribute reminded me immediately of the Jewish text that I learned with our faculty and staff during this year’s in-service and with our new Gann parents at their orientation. The text (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Eruvin 54b) describes a teacher, Rabbi Perida, who would repeat his lesson 400 times in order for his pupil to learn it. One day Rabbi Perida is invited to attend a simcha (a religious celebration), and his student has trouble learning, even with the repetition. Rabbi Perida asks him what the problem is, and the student responds that he has trouble paying attention because he keeps thinking, “The master is about to get up and leave.” Rabbi Perida assures him that he is not going anywhere, teaches him another 400 times, and the student learns the material.
Our teachers and parents offered different interpretations of this story from praise of Rabbi Perida’s persistence and dedication to his student’s learning to concerns about his pedagogy. To me, especially after reading Blow’s editorial, this text is about relationships and the social-emotional dimensions of learning. Students learn best when they are in relationships with teachers who see and value them as human beings, who are invested in them, and who will not give up on them. The power of a deep and meaningful relationship between student and teacher not only nurtures our students but also creates the conditions under which students will challenge themselves to achieve their highest potential. It is this relationship, along with the artful balance of nurture and challenge, that, as Blow describes, lights a fire inside them, inspiring students to pursue and achieve excellence and to become their best selves.
When I ask our students and alumni what they love most about Gann, the most common answer I hear is “our relationships with our teachers who we know care so much about us as people and who invest so much time in our learning.” At the same time our teachers frequently share with me stories about students who have challenged and inspired them with a comment in class or an outstanding piece of work.
At Gann we are blessed to have teachers who do what they do because they are passionately devoted to the subjects they teach and because, like Mrs. Thomas, they see their students, believe in their students, and love to see their students shine.
Rabbi Marc Baker