16 January 2009
20 Tevet 5769
As I told our faculty this week at the outset of Wednesday’s professional development day, I am in the middle of a prolonged “aha moment.” I have been inspired by the words of Roland Barth, an educational thinker, writer and teacher of teachers:
Why is it so crucial that teachers and administrators become the leading learners in their schools? The first is the extraordinary power of modeling. “Do as I do, as well as I say” is a powerful message not lost on youngsters who want to emulate the most important adult role models in their lives. Second, the world is changing. The problem with schools isn’t that they are no longer what they once were; the problem is that they are precisely what they once were. The world around the schoolhouse is changing dramatically. Teaching and leading are not innate for most of us. We teach and lead better when we constantly learn how to teach and lead. I found the words of Eric Hoffer, San Francisco longshoreman philosopher, on a huge sign at the door of a school in Connecticut: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Third, with learning comes replenishment of body, mind and spirit – and of schools. (Barth, Learning By Heart, p. 28)
One of our overarching school-wide goals this year is to put learning – for our students and ourselves – at the center. “Focus on student learning” is a hot phrase in education today, as educators call for heightened commitment to the growth and development of every child. What are we trying to teach? What do we want our students to know, value, be able to do? How will we know if they have learned what we think we have taught them? And in order to maximize our capacities to reach, to teach, and to challenge each child to meet his or her potential as a learner, teachers constantly must be learning and growing as well. We must deepen our knowledge about our subject matter, build a toolbox of pedagogic strategies, and enhance our understanding of how different students learn best.
But Roland Barth’s words have taken on much broader meaning for me this year, perhaps because in my second year as Head of School, I am always learning, often from my own mistakes! What I am discovering and rediscovering each day, each meeting, almost each moment, is that being a “life-long learner” or a “leading learner” – goals to which we aspire for our students and ourselves – is about more than engaging in passionate, ongoing exploration of subject matter or pedagogy. To be a learner is a perpetual stance toward life and toward the world. To be a learner is to see ourselves and our work, every experience, every encounter, every mistake, problem, or complaint as rich, layered texts that should be analyzed, unpacked, and culled for meaning, and that have the capacity to teach and transform us.
In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:22, Ben Bag Bag famously teaches: “Hafoch bah, hafoch bah, d’kula bah . . . Turn it/Delve into it, and keep delving into it, for everything is in it . . .” Ben Bag Bag is referring to the study of Torah, and I have always read this as a profound teaching about the unlimited potential and inexhaustible meaning of Torah. This is a beautiful message about our tradition that I think can be expanded to other academic disciplines as well. But as I read Roland Barth and as I keep turning and turning the notion of what it means to put learning at the center, I realize that this reading focuses entirely on one half of Ben Bag Bag’s statement: “d’kula bah – for everything is in it.” When we see learning primarily about acquiring knowledge of a subject (or even how to teach it), we zoom in on Ben Bag Bag’s “it,” which refers here to Torah. He also teaches us something about ourselves and how we should approach Torah and the world: Practice the discipline, the habit of mind and heart called “hafoch bah, hafoch bah.” Assume that Torah, and all of your life’s experiences, have a boundless amount to teach you if you are willing to slow down and take the time to examine, interpret and reflect. Our tradition is interested in more than the proliferation of Torah study; it aims to cultivate a certain character or personality – what I would call a learning disposition.
On Wednesday I encouraged our faculty to be a voracious learning community; to take risks by examining and letting others examine our teaching practice; to give and receive honest, sometimes difficult feedback; and, to see challenges, difficulties and mistakes not as problems that we must make go away, but rather as opportunities for learning and growth. Our day of faculty learning and hard work clarified why Ben Bag Bag’s statement is followed by a three word teaching of Ben Heh Heh: “L’fum tzara agra – According to the pain (of the effort, the toil) is the gain.” Assuming this stance toward the world is demanding and can be exhausting – intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. It requires patience, self-confidence and trust in each other and ourselves. It requires slowing down for long enough to look at things from new angles and with new eyes. It requires chevruta (learning partners) and community, and the tolerance of discord and debate. It requires tools of analysis and interpretation. It requires listening and the willingness to make ourselves vulnerable. It requires the faith that if we put in the work, if we turn it and delve into it for long enough, then we will learn, grow, adapt and change for the better. This is what it means to be a learner, and this is what it means to be a learning community. This is the kind of school I want to be a part of and this is why I love Gann so much.
While Ben Heh Heh reminds us that “no pain, no gain,” Roland Barth reminds us later in the same passage that “(schools) can become cultures where youngsters are discovering the joy, the difficulty, and the excitement of learning and where adults are continually rediscovering the joy, the difficulty, and the excitement of learning. Places where we are all in it together – learning by heart.” May we take the time and make the effort to “hafoch bah, hafoch bah”; and, as we continue to build our joyous and exciting learning community, may we all be in it together.
Rabbi Marc Baker