Earlier today (Wednesday), I heard the devastating news about the passing of a giant in Jewish education, Rabbi Dr. Chaim Feuerman z”l. Rabbi Feuerman was a master educator, yeshiva day school principal and stalwart at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education at Yeshiva University for many, many years. He was my teacher, my mentor, my friend. He had a profound influence on me in the formative years of my educational career. Since his passing was so close to Rosh Hashanah, there was little if any shiva to process this great loss…
In the spirit of Hakarat Hatov (acknowledging the good), recognizing Rabbi Feuerman’s profound influence on me and so many others, I am sharing three lessons that he taught me that have stuck with me over the years.
I. The Importance of “Wait Time”
Rabbi Feuerman affectionately used to refer to McTighe’s Bookmark, lessons from educational leader Jay McTighe. I have found two items on this bookmark to be especially useful in my teaching practices, Wait Time I and Wait Time II.
Wait Time I is a teaching strategy where, after posing a question, the teacher hesitates for 3-5 seconds before calling on someone. This sounds so simple but it can be transformative in the classroom. Let me explain.
Usually, a teacher calls on the first couple of students to raise their hands. These students are not necessarily the smartest students in class. They are the fastest. Students who take longer to process, rarely have a voice in the typical classroom.
I can relate to such students since that was the type of student that I was growing up. I was always a good student. I did well on tests and took meticulous notes. Other students would seek me out before exams both for my notes and as a study partner. I excelled on essay questions. Sometimes teachers even mentioned my essay answers to others as an example of a well formulated response.
During class, though, I was silent. Even when called on, I would often fumble, not knowing how to respond when put on the spot. A learning partner described me as taking a long time to warm up mentally, but once I started I could think deeply.
This was not rewarded in the typical classroom setting. The teacher called on the students who were the quickest to answer. Class had to move and the teacher rarely waited to encourage responses from more students.
Wait Time changes this dynamic. Everyone receives the time they need to process and answer the teacher’s questions.
As a follow-up to Wait Time I, Rabbi Feuerman also spoke of Wait Time II. This is a teaching strategy in following up on a student’s question. After the student responds, the teacher pauses, waiting another 3-5 seconds and looking reflective. This will encourage all the students in the class to reflect as well and will demonstrate to the student who answered that you value their thinking.
Rabbi Feuerman not only talked about the value of Wait Time. He lived it. He was tremendously patient and meticulous in the classroom. He would pose his questions and wait until everyone had a response. He would pause after a student’s response, stroke his beard for a few long moments, and then ask others in the class to reflect on what the student had said before posing his own thoughts.
In my teaching practices, I have tried to utilize technology to further Wait Time for my students, some of whom need even more than 3-5 seconds to process. I started with email exchanges with my students where I would compose a weekly question and elicit their responses. On this written forum, some students who were very quiet in class took the opportunity to shine. Later, I created online discussion forums for my students to demonstrate sophisticated higher-order thinking. This was inspired by my lessons from Rabbi Feuerman.
II. Respecting the Contact Function
Another lesson that Rabbi Feuerman taught me that has had a profound influence on my teaching career is what he called, “respect the contact function.” Respecting the contact function is a term from psychoanalysis that involves waiting for the other person to initiate a contact and then responding appropriately to this contact. Using this method, one balances the patient’s need for gratification through the analyst’s response with the need to create some level of patient frustration. It is through this frustration that the patient achieves growth.
As I was eager to advance in the field of Jewish education, Rabbi Feuerman always advised me to respect the contact function. He said that the best path in many situations is what he called affirmative inaction. If the teacher is negotiating a new position with a principal, she should wait for the principal to come to her after the initial conversation. This gives the principal the time and space to craft a position that fits into the needs of the school. This also creates a certain level of frustration on the part of the principal so that when the principal comes to the teacher with an offer it would be a better one. Respecting the contact function does not guarantee that the ultimate outcome will be to the teacher’s liking. However, it gives the teacher a stronger position for creating a consensus when the circumstances allow for it.
Respecting the contact function is very similar to Stephen Covey’s Habit 5 in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” This habit means that one should first listen carefully to the other person’s position before attempting any response.
This idea is also stated by our rabbis in Mishnah Avot (chapter 5, mishnah 7) where it says:
חָכָם אֵינוֹ מְדַבֵּר בִּפְנֵי מִי שֶׁהוּא גָדוֹל מִמֶּנּוּ בְּחָכְמָה וּבְמִנְיָן, וְאֵינוֹ נִכְנָס לְתוֹךְ דִּבְרֵי חֲבֵרוֹ, וְאֵינוֹ נִבְהָל לְהָשִׁיב.
The wise man does not speak before one who is greater in wisdom or number, he does not interrupt his friend’s conversation, and he does not rush to answer. The advice is that one should allow the other to initiate the conversation, listen to everything that she has to say, and analyze her words carefully before responding.
Rabbi Feuerman did not just speak about this habit. He lived it. He would rarely initiate a conversation, first taking the time to carefully listen and reflect. This way he gave us the chance to think carefully through our own responses rather than telling us what to think.
III. Giving Students a “Crutch”
I learned one more lesson from Rabbi Feuerman, that sometimes you should give your students a “crutch.” This was during a conversation about an app to assist in learning Gemara, Gemara Berura. I introduced Rabbi Feuerman to Gemara Berura which provides a suite of tools including keywords, color-coding, and flowcharting to help students mark up the text based on its function in the Talmudic discussion, what is called in the yeshiva world the “shakla ve-tarya of the sugya“. A teacher challenged the efficacy of this method, claiming that it would be a “crutch” for the student.
Rabbi Feuerman paused and thought for a moment, as he was wont to do and his eyes twinkled. He then reflected that after he had been in a car accident he had needed to use a crutch to help walk again independently. Students sometimes also need a “crutch” as well to help them successfully learn on their own. This was a profound illustration of the value of scaffolding and differentiated instruction.
I am forever indebted to Rabbi Feuerman for giving me the time, the space, and sometimes the “crutch” to help me achieve growth as a Jewish educator. Besides the many classes and conversations that I had with him, Rabbi Feuerman was also my doctoral advisor for the dissertation that I began many years ago until life got in the way. Hopefully someday I will return to it and dedicate it to Rabbi Feuerman, the patient, humble giant of Jewish education.