Many would imagine that it could be painful for a teacher to yield the front of the room. Segueing from confident expert to humble novice could be a bit complicated.
My own transition from teacher to student causes a mild inner trauma. I walked into the classroom, took my seat among the students but still was a bit unprepared for the jarring moment when the teacher came in and it wasn’t me. This happened day after day when I first went back to school in Jerusalem last year. Sure enough, it took a few lessons but I got the hint.
I have had some time to study this teacher-to-student phenomenon this year, as the group with which I am studying consists exclusively of teachers. Some have yielded more readily than others. But I have also observed that students can be molded almost effortlessly when you put them behind the desk, call on them unexpectedly and assign them homework. People tend to assume roles that have been foisted upon them — even teachers.
How quickly we mature senior educators forget the disruptive nature of note passing. How swiftly we begin to take lightly the previously valued institution of promptness. How fast we regress and declare in panic moments before the lesson, “What was the homework assignment?” or “Quick, what was the general gist of the 54-page article in five sentences or less?” It is with but a blink of the eye that we shamelessly learn to celebrate the absence of a professor.
Is the separation between teacher and student so great and so marked? Is the abyss that divides the two so dramatic? Or perhaps these are but amusing manifestations, trite behaviors that belie the true essence and dynamic of the learning process? Could it be instead that the occupation of being a student and the craft of being a teacher are merely two sides of the same coin? Sitting at a different desk this year, I am starting to think more and more about this idea. Perhaps the gulf between teacher and student is less dramatic. It is not that there isn’t a difference between being a student and being a teacher. There is a difference. But perhaps it is not as striking as one would think.
Microscope time. Let’s put the classroom on a slide and examine it carefully. What goes on behind those closed doors? Zooming in closely is not so easy. For those who dwell outside the world of education, the idea of classrooms and what goes on within their walls is sometimes cast in stone with fermented images from childhood. They are stilted views informed mostly by traumatic moments and memories of tediously long and painful lessons. Sure, some memories recall sparks of inspiration, the life-changing influence of a caring teacher or the engaging, mind-opening lessons of a unique instructor. But, for the most part, recollections of schools and classrooms harbor on the sterile or negative.
I am going to ask you to try to set these pictures aside in order to consider another image. Instead, this slide will tell the tale of teachers and students who are partners in the dynamic process of learning. Something is changed here. We are situated way at the other end of the spectrum from the previous frightening images. Here interaction is based on shared intellectual pursuit, where learners are both the students and the teacher alike. Together they travel. New adventures await those who study.
I believe that for those who study Torah the journey has a transcendent quality. The nature of the travel is less one of place and more one of time. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik said once, that the one who studies, feels the breath of eternity upon their shoulders as they learn. Each day of study offers a Sinai-like experience of receiving the Torah anew.
This is the kind of learning I love. I remember being a teacher — it was not that long ago. Back then, I would enter the classroom yes, with some answers but with many more questions. The excitement of teaching is hearing new ideas, being surprised with different answers and being stumped by unanticipated questions. Uncertainty is perhaps the only certainty in the classroom. You never really know what will occur. Sparks fly and all sorts of things begin to happen.
The Talmudic sage, Rav Nachman the son of Yischak, must have been thinking about this sort of occurrence when he asks why the words of Torah are compared to a tree. He explains that this teaches that just as a small piece of wood ignites a large one so it is with scholars, younger ones sharpen the minds of the older ones with their constant questioning. So our tree of life is now wood and there are two kinds, kindling, the younger students and the thicker wood, the older students. A metaphor not without charm, an image of students as kindling is striking indeed. Who would have thought that it is the young that stimulate the elders? Teachers and students alike are learners in a classroom.
And if we didn’t quite get the point, Rabbi Chaninah picks up where Rav Nachman leaves off and states this oft-quoted piece of wisdom, “I have learned much from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my students more than from them all.” Our ancient teachers recognized the subtleties of the house of study. Healthy learning does not move in only one path but rather travels in a two-lane highway with knowledge heading in both directions.
The classroom is a vibrant organism. It is a place where all who enter never leave unchanged. Is it different being the student? Sure it is. I am privileged to be able to study great ideas with great scholars in a great city. I am not preparing the lesson but preparing for the lesson. But what draws me, and most teachers to those rooms equipped with boards and chalk and books and paper and pens, is a thirsty passionate love of learning. And so finally, the essential activity remains intact for me this year, study. But, I must admit that sitting among the students is certainly a refreshing place to be — at least for the time being.
(Rivy Poupko Kletenik is on leave of absence from her position at the Jewish Education Council and is presently studying in Jerusalem as a Melton Senior Educator.)