Yitzchak Blau

The Teacher-Student Relationship

Teachers, including successful ones, often function intuitively for years without asking themselves what their pedagogic ideals are and how they go about accomplishing them. Sometimes, an external influence helpfully prompts some needed self-reflection. Akiva Garner, an excellent student in Yeshivat Orayta , recently asked me why some teacher’s shiurim generate more student input than others. I had always known that I valued student participation but had never thought about how to encourage it.

On the spot, I stated the obvious response that certain teachers always pose questions to the class and frequently invite their comments. A day later, further consideration led to a more meaningful answer. In crafting a learning environment, how a teacher responds to students is more influential than asking them questions in the first place.  Does the instructor just go through the motions of listening to the students while eagerly waiting to resume his or her presentation?   Does the lecturer, in more extreme cases, refuse to ever concede that a student suggested a correct answer or, rather, does the teacher become genuinely excited about a student with a novel or insightful comment?  I believe that an enthusiastic and encouraging reaction plays the biggest role in motivating students to become active contributors to the classroom learning.

The next day, I discussed this with a group of highly intelligent students in Midreshet Lindenbaum and they analyzed which character traits enable a teacher to appreciate the value of student input. Rivka Wyner suggested confidence while Miry Jonas pointed to humility. I endorsed both opinions.   Arrogant lecturers cannot acknowledge that a young pupil might arrive at a clever idea that they did not anticipate; hence the need for humility. On the other hand, underconfident instructors worry that a student comment might derail a carefully prepared and structured lesson, hence the need for confidence.

Having addressed how to inspire dialogue in discourse with students, we should also question why we value it. The simplest reason is that such two – way conversation truly leads to deeper understanding. The Talmud’s statement “I learned much Torah from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students” (Makkot 10a) can be explained in two ways. Perhaps anticipating standing in front of students acts primarily as a stimulant to get the instructor thinking. Having to prepare for a shiur, organizing the material in a clear fashion, and predicting student questions can all lead a teacher to deeper understanding. Alternatively, the students benefit the teacher more directly, not while she sits in her study preparing the lesson, but in the rough and tumble of the classroom, with their comments and questions. Just because the teacher knows more and has seen the material numerous times does not mean that the students cannot arrive at a fresh insight unconsidered by the rebbe in the study hall or the professor in the classroom. After all, each individual has his or her own perspective and the application of as many bright minds as we have gathered in one class often produces novel and important results in exploring rich material. This has certainly been my experience over nearly thirty years in education.

In the introduction to his work of responsa, Rav Pealim, R. Yosef Hayyim of Bagdad (1835-1909, known as Ben Ish Hai) writes of the importance of discussing one’s ideas both with those more advanced and with those still in their early development. A variety of conversations about Torah generates the best insights. We understand how R. Yohanan valued the twenty-four questions which Reish Lakish would invariably subject his ideas to and why he felt their irreplaceable loss after Reish Lakish’s tragic demise (Bava Mezia 84a).

Of course, the gain here includes not only the teacher achieving greater wisdom; it also relates to student growth and development. Do we want students who can think creatively and solve problems or those only capable of parroting the teacher? Encouraging student input inspires the former.

Beyond added wisdom for all concerned and student maturation, this approach also creates a healthier teacher – student dynamic. A teacher who indicates that he can learn from a pupil clarifies that the teacher is not some otherworldly figure with all the answers. Some students, struggling with “the weight of too much liberty” (from Wordsworth’s Nuns Fret Not at Their Convent’s Narrow Room), prefer teachers claiming to hold the keys to unlocking all their intellectual and personal dilemmas. This dependency reflects a lack of responsibility and can inflate the ego of a teacher till he mistakenly thinks that he can solve any problem.  We certainly value respect for teachers and their responses to questions are helpful but it should remain clear that instructors tend to share the common flaws and limitations of humanity. Educational responsibility demands that teachers realize their limitations and that students learn to independently confront challenges.

An atmosphere of authentic dialogue also fosters the ability to criticize faculty when necessary.  Teachers may give in to the temptation to stifle debate by asserting that “I am older and know better.”  Of course, experience and accumulated life wisdom does matter but it is almost always better to address the ideas themselves. Furthermore, teachers sometimes say and do inappropriate things and we want our students to be able to acknowledge and express their opposition. The most powerful example of this concern regards clergy and others who abuse students.

One could counter that we live in an era that needs more respect for religious and educational authority and not less. However, opposing trends often play off each other and lack of authority can lead to a desperate search for a strong leader to rely upon. I think it no accident that both papal infallibility (formerly defined at the First Vatican Council in 1870) and Daas Torah (see are products of modernity. Indeed, plenty of problematic authoritarian models exist in the current Orthodox Jewish world. Fruitful dialogue in each class and an atmosphere of mutually beneficial learning created by the teacher can help move us away from such models.

The author would like to thank Rabbi Jeffrey Saks and Mordechai Blau for their helpful comments. 

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
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