I teach Hebrew and every time I tell someone I teach Hebrew they always say, “oh, you work at a Jewish school?” No, I work at a public school. “Oh,” they say, “they teach Hebrew at public school?” I tell them, yes. They do. After all, the school I work at is 40 percent Jewish. “That’s incredible,” they say. “That they teach Hebrew at public high school.” Well, like I said, the school I teach at is 40 percent Jewish.
I don’t teach Hebrew because I’m half-Israeli or because I’m Jewish. I don’t teach Hebrew because I have a love for the Hebrew language that I just need to pass on to high school students. And I don’t teach Hebrew for the paycheck. I teach Hebrew because I wanted to teach history but no school in the area had any history openings after I graduated; a couple had Hebrew openings and I speak Hebrew and had a teaching certificate.
It’s funny because no matter what the subject you teach, it’s a little disconcerting to see that the kids don’t care about learning, they just want a good grade. That’s why I when I found out I actually had a couple students who genuinely wanted to learn Hebrew, I forgot that I ended up here because there were no history openings; I was just happy that these kids cared about learning as much as I did teaching.
The week before Thanksgiving break in my third year as a teacher I gave my students a writing assignment: write about what you did the day after Thanksgiving. A pretty simple assignment really – 8 to ten sentences, use 5 of the new verbs we learned in class in past tense, a few of the new nouns; typical foreign language stuff. And after break when 15 of my 20 students returned to me their assignments on the due date (you see three lost the assignment, one forgot to do it and one swore I never assigned this), I was expecting to read 15 very carefully crafted short-answer responses that did just enough to earn them an “A.” And most of them earned A’s – the responses weren’t exciting and I got what I expected, but in the thick of the mundane and blind obedience of the guidelines, a couple students surprised me.
These weren’t the students that earned A’s. They earned C’s and maybe if they were lucky – B’s. I wanted to give them A’s, I really did, but I don’t “give” grades. The students earn them and I just record them. In a perfect world, however, they would have earned A’s, but its so hard to earn A’s in these types of situations. On any written assignment, you need to be as objective as possible because the kids and their parents need to know exactly why they received the grade they did. If a student ends up with a “B” and their parents want to know why, I can’t say, “well, I just didn’t think it was ‘A’ material.” In order to remain objective, I need to give written assignments with very strict and unflinchingly rigid guidelines for the students to follow.
The problem is that when I have kids who really want to challenge themselves, expand their knowledge, try to use the recently acquired language skills in different contexts and write about higher level topics, they tend to make mistakes. And you know what the sad thing is? As a teacher, my hands are sort of tied when that happens because I want to give them an “A.” But if I do that, and the other students ask why that kid got an A and he or she didn’t, and if I say, “well, I liked their effort and I like how they tried to take their work to another level even if they made more mistakes than you along the way,” the other student will respond, “Prove that my effort wasn’t “A” material.” And that’s why I need to give writing assignments with very strict and unflinchingly rigid guidelines for the students to follow that handcuffs them when trying to express their creativity and handcuffs me when assessing their work. And I remember the day I gave those assignments back and I wanted to share that with them. Tell them – don’t worry about your grade. You’ll get the grade you want, I promise. But continue to take chances. Go outside your comfort zone. Don’t just stay within the lines because honestly, you’ll do fine if you stay within in the lines but you’ll learn more outside of them.
As I stand there in front of my class of 20, explaining how proud I was of those students who sacrificed a few points because of the mistakes they made trying to take their Hebrew skills to the next level, I see 7 bright-eyed kids staring back at me – 3 kids desperately trying to stay awake and the other half of the kids texting on their phones about this and that or G-d knows what…
“Hey!” I yell. “Put your phone away!”
“What? Mr. Morrel! It’s not out!”
“I can see it on your desk.”
“But it’s just sitting there. I need to know what time it is. I mean, I’m just checking the weather. I mean, no, I need to text my mother something!”
“I don’t think she’d appreciate you texting in the middle of class.” I shoot back. “Put it away or I’m taking it.”
“Ok, ok… I’m putting it away.”
I continue. It’s important to me that even if only one of them knows that if you want to learn the language – you need to take chances and you can’t be afraid of only working within the confines of what you’re comfortable with because you can’t really grow that way. Grow as a person, grow in anything you do. Does my harangue fall on deaf ears? Possibly. Maybe. Who knows – you don’t go into teaching for immediate praise. It just doesn’t happen. The more you push them, the more they resent you. And I think to myself, how do I continue to encourage students to sacrifice a little bit of their grade to take more chances and push themselves to enhance learning, not just their grade point average – because the truth is, if they do that, they will make mistakes along the way. And I have to point them out and mark it off. That’s the shame in all of this.
I don’t know how I feel as the bell rings and the kids leave as if they’ve just been released from lockdown. I unplug my lap top and shut off the over head projector. I have all my things together and I look up to see an awkwardly tall teenage boy whose torso and coordination have not received the message that he’s nearly 6 foot 2, standing in front of me.
He’s quiet in class and rarely seeks my help. He usually doesn’t seek anything from me – he just does what he needs to and goes about his business. But now he stands in front of me and I can see by the way he raises his eyebrows and shifts his weight from one foot to the next that he has a question for me.
“Um, Mr. Morrel. If I get a C on the next short-answer assignment and I have a 93 percent right now, do you think I’ll end up with an A?”
I nod, and he continues.
“Because, I want to try to use the new vocab in a different way. Sort of like you were saying, to be a better Hebrew speaker, but, um, I don’t wanna hurt my grade.”
I smile and tell him not to worry. He’ll be fine no matter what he earns on the next short-answer writing assignment. He thanks me and leaves and I just have to smile and shake my head. I guess that’s the best I’m going to get.
But you know what? That’s fine. In fact, it’s better than fine. I used to have the same exact view, “that’s the best I’m going to get,” when I had to settle for a Hebrew job when there were no history openings.