20 February 2009
26 Shevat 5769
One of my many humbling learning experiences as a first year teacher occurred during a conference with my mentor, Barbara, after she observed one of my classes. I was fresh out of Yeshiva, passionate about learning and teaching Torah, and convinced that my excitement and my energy, along with sophisticated insights into the material of course, would translate into similar excitement and rich learning for my students. “Let’s put it this way,” Barbara said, “when you began the class, you were all on shore, preparing to set sail on a meaningful journey together. By mid-way through the class, you were flying through the water on a speedboat, energetically bouncing with each wave you crossed . . . And they? Well, they were still standing ashore, watching you in semi-daze, semi-disbelief, waving and shouting out to you in slow motion: “hey there, Mr. Baker!”
I think of this story nearly every time I walk out of a classroom, after I give a speech, even after I teach (or is it lecture or reprimand?) my young children. I am pretty sure of what I taught, but how confident I am about what they learned? I know what I said, but how often do they hear the famous Charlie Brown representation of the teacher speaking wordless babble? The ability to close this gap – between what we intend to communicate and what our students and our children actually hear and learn – is the art of great teaching. It means that we must take responsibility for our knowledge of our subject (of what we are trying to teach) and for how we try to convey it; and, more dauntingly, we also must take responsibility for that which so often feels out of our control – our students’ learning.
God seems to have understood this timeless pedagogic challenge beginning with His first classroom, Mount Sinai. Of course, God had an even more difficult challenge, for he had to rely on Moshe to teach the material. In the opening line of this week’s parsha (Mishpatim), God says to Moshe, “V’eileh hamishpatim asher tasim lifneihem – And these are the laws that you shall put before them.” (Exodus 21:1) Rashi quotes a midrash interpreting the Torah’s use of the phrase “put before them.” Why does the text not simply say, “that you shall teach them” or “say to them” or “command them”? According to Rashi, “God said to Moshe: It should not enter your mind to say ‘I shall teach them a section of Torah . . . twice or three times until they will memorize it and be able to recite it fluently, but I will not go to the trouble of making them understand the reason of the thing and its meaning or relevance.’ Therefore, the text says ‘you shall put before them,’ like a set table (a shulchan aruch) that is ready and prepared for a person to eat from it.”
This commentary’s image of effective teaching as the setting of a table captures some of the nuances of good teaching. Anyone who has raised a young child knows that you cannot force someone to eat, just as you cannot force a high school student to engage. Ultimately, the learner must actively participate in the learning process – must, so to speak, come to the table. However, God’s first pedagogic instructions to Moshe address some common misconceptions about teaching. Just because my students can spit back what I have taught them does not mean that they understand it; memorization is not the same things as internalization, as deep learning. And, contrary to my early intuitions, no matter how many times I repeat something, no matter how much excitement I exhibit as I give something over, frontally transmitting information is not the same as fully taking responsibility for ensuring that each and every student in my class “understands the reason of the thing and its meaning and relevance” for his or her life. Neither repetition nor charismatic lecturing nor even prophetic transmission necessarily amount to great teaching.
As if being the receiver and transmitter of God’s Torah is not challenging enough, God makes clear to Moshe that in order for B’nei Yisrael to learn and to live the Torah, Moshe will have to grow from prophet-transmitter-lecturer into master teacher. This would turn out to be an enormous task and a thankless job for Moshe, who never quite seemed to get it right. Alas, at least we stand humbly on the shoulders of imperfect giants! The challenges of teaching are timeless, but so are the sanctity of the work and the magnitude of the reward.
Rabbi Marc Baker