What I miss most about working in a high school is the dynamism. It is addictive. On any given day, I would move from a vibrant morning minyan, where a student had taken on a new leadership role, leaving behind the shackles of peer pressure, and putting himself on display. Next, into a classroom discussion about the Hegelian influence on early Zionist thinkers, and then to the beit midrash where I flitted between havruta digging into early rabbinic texts, the students, breaking their teeth on the Hebrew, sticking with it, even though it is difficult and time consuming. Afterwards, I might have brainstormed, with a senior, for her college essay or met with a colleague as we think together about how to guide the knesset (student government) in serving their fellow students’ needs. I often mentioned to friends that my brain moved in so many different ways during the day – I loved it!
Teaching is a job that feels deeply important, urgent. When I think about education, I do not relate to it as the process in which I simply impart content. For me, the moment that epitomizes true learning, is when a student is able to read a text and then says what it means. This is not a simple thing to do. The student, that can, for a moment, recognize a separation between, themselves and knowledge in the world, and express what that text means (in any of the ways it may mean something), and not simply what they think about it, feels like a holy moment.
For Buber, this led to hearing the Divine voice in the text of the Bible. Of the Bible, Buber wrote in Scripture and Translation, “Do we mean a book? We mean the voice. Do we mean that people should learn to read it? We mean that people should learn to hear it.” That a student might take all of their learning so seriously, that a teacher may be able to create an environment where students strive to hear the voice of the material, no matter its origin, is of course, the dream. And what if they actually hear the voice (or the Voice)? Through recognition of the other in the text and the other in the classroom, this is when students learn to consider a world beyond their own.
James Baldwin, in “A Talk to Teachers” identifies the central paradox of education. On the one hand, education is about socializing students to the norms of society, yet, he notes, there is a higher calling:
The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity.
By seeing the text, by hearing the voice, the student can then look at the world for himself. One can only accurately evaluate something if that something exists independently. Baldwin goes on, “The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk.”
How can we possibly examine society if we cannot think critically about it? If we leave the world unexamined, then we risk committing terrible violence, either through our complacency or a hubris filled fight for change.
To this end, education, is nothing, if not a life or death situation. This may be why, R. Nechunya ben HaKaneh, as told by Mishnah Brachot 4:2 would offer short prayers before and after leaving the beit midrash, a place known for its intellectual battles and violent verbal clashes.
But have we teachers been so careful? Have we been so intentional? Given this sense of holy work, this urgency, I arrive at Yom Kippur each year with a heavy heart. Woe, how I have been hasty and angry and full of excuses (tired)! I have not approached each moment with the dedication and mindfulness that it deserves. I have sinned.
And so, I offer up to my students, this vidui, this confession. Words that cannot begin to make up for the ways that I have hurt and harmed.
We have transgressed:
For all of the times we did not hold our students accountable
For all of the times we let their classroom comments float into emptiness because it seemed easier that way.
For all of the times we gave them extensions when they needed boundaries.
For all of the times we gave them boundaries when they needed extensions.
For all of the times we slandered our students, laughing with colleagues about their mistakes.
For all of the times we saw them as they were the day before.
For all of the times we did not use each minute of class to its fullest.
For all of the times we expected them to just get it.
For all of the times we came to class, not fully prepared.
For all of the times we said spelling doesn’t count.
For all of the times we took too long to grade.
For all of the times we asked single-answer questions.
For all of the times we were strict about being on time, about being prepared, about being 100% present, when they needed compassion and love from us that day.
For all of the times we were lenient about being on time, about being prepared, about being 100% present, when they needed structure and love from us that day.
For all of the times we did not make them cite their sources.
For all of the times we let them use their computer unmonitored.
For all of the times we looked the other way.
For all of the times we did not check the homework.
For all of the times we did not plan ahead.
For all of the times we said no, because it was easier.
For all of the times we were afraid to push a little harder.