I love teaching high school. Although I have been a high school principal for over 15 years, throughout this period I have remained a classroom teacher. I spend the first part of every school day in the classroom.
Friends often suggest that my life would be less hectic if I gave up my daily teaching responsibilities and freed up more time for focusing on my administrative responsibilities.
Perhaps this well-intentioned suggestion is accurate. Yet, it does not have much appeal to me. My passion is education. Education happens in the classroom. The job of an administrator is to support the effort of the students and teachers. But the process of learning takes place through the interaction of the faculty and students. My joy comes from being part of the process.
What is so wonderful about teaching high schoolers? After all, these are adolescents! We have wonderful students at Northwest Yeshiva High School. But in many ways, they are typical teenagers. Many of them love loud music ' they call it music. Some of them are quite loud themselves. I am not sure I fully appreciate their fashion statements. Of course, many have 'issues' with authority. Yes, they can be a pain!
But in the classroom, some of these same traits fill the environment with excitement, energy, and wonder. I want my students to challenge, question, and critique the material we study. I want my students to question. And after they have developed their questions, I invite them to join me in the quest for answers or at least to share my joy in the wonder of the mysteries we discover.
Obviously, I believe that a high school Torah education is invaluable if we are to transmit our values and traditions to the next generation. I am pleased to play a role in this process of transmission. It gives me boundless pleasure to observe the growth of our teenagers into committed Jews. But day in and day out, my joy comes from the interaction I experience with my students in the classroom.
It is difficult to describe to a general audience the environment of a Talmud classroom. Let me present an analogy. Imagine a group of students studying Plato's Republic. First these students are assigned a portion of the dialogue to study. They must master every question and answer in the portion of the dialogue. But it is not enough to quote the steps of the dialogue: the students must be able to present the steps in their own words. Each phrase is carefully scrutinized to determine whether the student truly understands.
Next, the students must identify the key issues of the debate. What is the fundamental difference between Socrates' perspective and that of his protagonist? Then the students are challenged to critique the positions. Does Socrates really prove his point? Is his analysis really valid?
Inevitably, the students have a number of questions. The students and instructor discuss possible responses. Perhaps no work of philosophy has been more carefully analyzed than Plato's Republic, so the students and their instructor search the literature for scholars who have discussed their questions on the dialogue. They discover that some of their own suggested responses are discussed by the scholars and either rejected or accepted. In addition, these scholars provide added insights and raise questions the students have not considered.
This may sound like a sophisticated course, with a level of rigor in a graduate philosophy seminar. Yet this is a perfect analogy to the interaction that takes place in a Talmud or Chumash class. We begin with text. We master it, abstract the main issues, identify the key questions, contemplate possible responses, consult the commentaries, and compare the commentaries' responses to our own and learn from their insights.
There is an important difference between the philosophy class and the Talmud or Chumash class, however. The Talmud or Chumash class deals with text written entirely in Hebrew or Aramaic. So, in addition to the exchange and development of ideas, the students must develop advanced language skills. I have the honor and pleasure to be engaged in this interchange every day. And each day I have the gratification of watching my students develop and meet new challenges. I cannot imagine a more rewarding experience!
A father of one of our graduates often tells of an interaction he had with his son when this teenager was in NYHS. They became engaged in a heated debate. As the discussion developed, it became clear to both that the son was gaining the upper hand. The son detected his father's surprise ' and perhaps, discomfort ' with this development. The son said to his father, 'Dad, if you didn't want me to learn to think, why did you send me to NYHS?'
Every time the father tells this story, he beams with pride.
Many parents and students tell me that the skills our students develop in their Torah classes help them in all of their studies. In college and university, these skills are an asset that lend to their success. I am certainly pleased with these reports, but I also have some ambivalence regarding this issue.
I think it is great that NYHS excels in preparing students for college. I am pleased that Torah studies contribute to our students' level of preparation. But I do not want our Torah studies program to be perceived as merely one of the ingredients that create an unusually successful college-preparatory program. It is important that Torah study be appreciated as an end in itself.
Judaism is unique. Many religious movements rely upon indoctrination. These religious movements do not encourage a careful scrutiny of the principles and positions of the religion. In order to encourage obedience and discourage division, education is replaced by indoctrination. The principles are taught and perhaps discussed, but there is no detailed consideration of the complexity and meaning of these principles.
In contrast, Judaism demands both emotional and intellectual commitment. The study of the Torah, the mining of its depths, appreciation of its complexities, and love for the beauty of its wisdom, are fundamental to our religion. The primary objective of Torah study is to create complete and understanding Jews.
I believe one of the greatest indicators of this unique aspect of Torah study is the impact of study on the teacher. In a system based upon indoctrination, it is the responsibility of the teacher to mold the students. But it is unacceptable for the novice, ignorant students to educate the teacher.
In contrast, in our system the teacher often learns from the students. The questions and suggestions developed by my students often give me cause to reconsider my own positions and pre-conceptions. Complexities and issues I had not anticipated are revealed through the give-and-take of the classroom. Sometimes, at the end of a class, I wonder who has learned more ' the students of the teacher!
So, I love to teach. And I would love to teach your sons and daughters.
Rabbi Bernie Fox is Head of School at Northwest Yeshiva High School. He has served in that position for over 15 years.