Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

But can the rabbi teach?

Even seasoned teachers can improve with exposure to studying teaching methods, classroom management, and pedagogy. (courtesy)

I was ordained in July of 1988, and I always loved teaching. So, when I moved to my first congregation, I told my new congregants that I wanted to teach the Bar/Bat Mitzvah class, as well as the final year of Kabbalat Torah (Confirmation).

While a rabbinical student, I had two courses on education: one called “The Rabbi as Educator” and the second a seminar on moral development in children. I taught at the Seminary’s Hebrew High School, teaching the senior class an elective on contemporary Jewish issues. I thought I knew more than enough to succeed with even the most difficult class. After all, I was certified by my training to be “Rabbi, Preacher, and Teacher.” I knew much more than the average teacher about Judaism and Jewish texts. Wasn’t that—and intense friendliness —sufficient?

And with that attitude, a good-willing arrogance, I contributed to an educational catastrophe.

The topic was Siddur/Prayerbook: I was to teach the values and content of the prayerbook to a room full of seventh grade children who did not want to be there, who did not care what values the Siddur contained, and who were intelligent enough to distinguish between my personality (“We like you Rabbi…”) and my pedagogy (“…but your class is boring”).
Midway through the year, one of my best students told me that she was frustrated “just going through the Siddur.” Students of lesser patience (and discretion) communicated through disruption, interruption, and selective deafness. I was devastated. I fancied myself a master teacher. After all, my adult education programs were a smashing success, and the preschool children I addressed each Friday morning loved me. So why couldn’t my Kitah Hay enjoy what I was teaching?

I was determined that these children would have a more dynamic and interesting Jewish education than I had had when I was their age. But I had no idea how to accomplish that goal. In a panic, I ransacked the synagogue library for any practical guides I could find. Turning to our collection of catalogues, I poured the contents of my discretionary fund into the coffers of A.R.E., Torah Aura, the Melton Center, and Behrman House—all with the desperation of grasping for a lifeline. I was drowning in the recognition that no one had ever taught me how to teach children.

Members of the educational community cannot assume that rabbinical students are automatically exposed to teaching methods for grade school students. At no point in rabbinical school had anyone explained how to turn academic content into dynamic game, debate, or art. After all, I studied in a bastion of scholarship.

Scholars don’t do psychodrama or use glue sticks. Scholars live in the world of the Association of Jewish Studies, but not that of CAJE. They read and write scholarly essays, not articles on how to attract and hold the attention of a third grader.

In short, my rabbinical school education prepared me well to counsel adults who were interested in learning. But my training had neglected to cultivate a teacher. And that’s what my Kitah Hay needed.

With the passing of time, our rabbinical schools have increasingly recognized the need for practical courses in education—not to expound on the theory underlying classroom methods, but rather to transmit the methods themselves: teaching how to manage the classroom, how to co-opt a difficult student, how to present material in interesting formats, how to smuggle in learning amidst an abundance of fun and activity.

But, in the meanwhile, Jewish educational agencies (such as BJE, New CAJE, and others) can serve an important role. By aggressively reaching out to the students of rabbinical schools, these organizations can provide a supplementary education (and for most educators, isn’t supplementary education our specialty?) so that newly-ordained rabbis will have a network already in place when they need it. Couldn’t we contribute to the professionalization of Jewish education by assuring the pedagogic capability of our rabbis?

As a rabbinical student, I was unaware of the wealth of networks and organizations designed to assist in educating children. I was inexperienced about implementing a curriculum so school children would respond with interest and excitement. I was ignorant of such marvelous introductions as Seymour Rossel’s Managing the Jewish Classroom or of such practical aids as Bernard Reisman’s The Jewish Experiential Book. And there are many, many more.

Professionalizing the standards of other educators is an important endeavor. But we need to professionalize the full-time educators as well. Ordination in a rabbinical school does not necessarily guarantee that the rabbi is an educator. Professionalize the rabbis too.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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