“In a lifetime, you must meet a good teacher who will change your life.”
There are an enormous number of impediments to a student’s ability to absorb what a teacher is attempting to communicate. The following list, assembled with a friend and presented here in no particular order of importance, barely covers the topic. Some, and sometimes many, of the reasons apply to kindergarten and primary school children through high school age, adults, and also to childhood issues that continue into adulthood. The setting could be a classroom, a public lecture, large groups including huge college lecture halls, and even one-on-one teaching.
Among the possible barriers might be: A student consistently displaying an angry, anxious, or depressed mood; hungry – with or without free lunches or breakfasts; eating disorders; uncontrolled hormones; sleep-deprivation (which is why some schools systems moved the start of the school day to later); trouble at home; living with a sibling with disabilities; having to be a caregiver for a parent or parents; a kinetic learner; super-geeks who only learn with a screen in front of them; physically short for his or her age, seriously overweight, or clumsy, or having a physical disability that makes them an easy target for bullying; ADHD, ADD, LD, and OCD (with or without medications); too bright and advanced for the subject matter, and the all-too-common self-, peer-, or parent-imposed pressure for perfectionism.
So how is a teacher supposed to fulfill the meaning of the verse in Proverbs 22:6, “Educate a child in the best way that fits the student’s personality and abilities, so that even in old age it will have served the student well” when there are so many and varied difficulties to finding the best “way” to reach the students?
To better attempt to reach a Jewish solution to the problem, we need to understand that the root of the Hebrew word — חנך — (the first word in Proverbs 22:6 – chanoch) has a range of meanings besides “educate” which include “to train”, “dedicate (same root used in Chanukah)”, and even “consecrate” (an altar, a temple). Some of these definitions fit either the teacher, the student, or both.
The issue of how best to educate students is a topic for a full-blown master’s thesis or PhD dissertation. I would rather concentrate on the second half of the verse “so that even in old age it will have served the student well”.
Again, I have to make a partial list of possible “ways” that a person eventually lives his or her life (in no order): It does not necessarily come as a revelation; it could be percolating in the mind for years; a heart-to-heart talk with a friend; some offhand comment; focused (and sometimes desperate) research; a movie, play scene, or clever phrase in a movie or play; therapy; being in the right place at the right time; by chance or sheer luck; through intense self-examination after a realization of deeply-felt personal discontent; even in an 11th grade chemistry class witnessing the explosion of bubbles in a beaker; a field trip to a museum; meeting someone he or she admires, such as a Mitzvah hero, and, of course, having exactly the right teacher (in the restricted or broadest meaning of the word).
(Before mentioning specific examples, I think it would be important to mention the high percentage of second- and third-career students in our rabbinical schools and other institutions of higher learning.)
For individual stories, I list some examples:
Alef — The late Professor H.L. Ginsberg, pre-eminent Bible scholar in my day, with whom I studied in many classes at the Jewish Theological Seminary: From an article I read, I was surprised to learn he had actually finished a year of medical school. The article was brief, so I could not decipher the source of his redirection into Bible studies.
Bet — My late brother, Dr. Stanley Siegel, PhD in physics: If I am not mistaken, after he had answered the questions of the members of his PhD committee to their satisfaction, he actually announced that he was leaving the field of physics immediately. He had done his research thoroughly and realized that there was not much of a market for jobs in physics. Not long afterward, he switched to computers and had a most successful career for the next almost half a century, spanning the era from punch cards and FORTRAN to co-authoring books on cyber-security.
Gimel — My late father, Dr. Julius Siegel, D.O., general practitioner for more than 50 years in Falls Church, Virginia: After graduating from Rutgers, he was not accepted to medical school. The mid-1930’s was the heyday of the numerus clausus that restricted the number of Jews in medical schools, universities, and many other institutions of higher learning.
(I also suspect he was also not a straight-A student, and I certainly didn’t think it was my place to ask.) At that point, he decided to go to the University of Michigan to take a summer course in biology or biochemistry. One day, as he was walking out of the library, he saw another student reading a book and asked what was he reading about. He answered, “Osteopathy”. My father then asked The Classic Question, “What’s that?” Though it is trite to say it — the rest is history. He applied to the Philadelphia College of Osteopathy. (It is a well-known historical fact that, from their inception, schools of osteopathy were open to Jews, women, and people of any color.) Diploma in hand, he moved with the family to northern Virginia, passed the same licensing exams as the MD’s, and established an immediately-successful practice.
Dalet — In a totally different class of redirection is the career and life of a British stockbroker named Nicholas Winton: In late 1938, he had planned to take a ski vacation in Switzerland but, for some reason, went instead to Prague. While there, he visited a friend who was involved in helping refugees escape from the Nazis. Winton then personally took on the immense task of rescue. After arranging for British families to take children in, Winton then organized trains to England up to the very last possible minute. Ultimately, Winton saved 669 children. Historians refer to his life-saving project as the Czech Kindertransport, and to Winton as the British Schindler.
Returning now to a teacher’s place in this array of possibilities: (a) Her or his essential “job” would be to give the students the fortitude, resilience, perseverance, and stamina to withstand anything they might encounter in life, be it disappointment, illness, the senseless death of friends before their time; pandemic; overcoming devastation from a natural disaster, picking up the pieces of a business plundered in a riot, or any one of a number of other unforeseen deeply distressing tragedies, and — in a class by itself – teaching Survivors of the Shoah; (b) in certain instances, the teacher may offer life-direction, but with the proviso that there be none of the ego-tripping of playing ”rebbi”, and (c) exposing them to exceptional ideas and (I believe, more importantly) unforgettable experiences that will remain an essential part of who they are and how they will live for the rest of their lives.
And so it happened, pre-pandemic, on a long flight back home to Washington, bored with the book I was reading, I checked the extensive list of movies. I had already seen many of them, and others did not interest me. Frustrated, and still with many hours until we would land, I checked the foreign language films. I stumbled on a Chinese-language movie (thankfully with subtitles) called Little Big Master. In my mind, it is The Greatest Movie About What It Means To Be A Teacher — Ever. In it, a young teacher quits her job in a school filled with students overly-pressured to perfectionism. By chance, she learns about a neglected kindergarten with five students that the officials had threatened to close. “The rest is history.” The movie is filled with magical and both tearjerking and non-tearjerking moments. It is there with those students that she finds real meaning and absolute contentment. The perfect ending comes with the line, “In a lifetime, you must meet a good teacher who will change your life.”
As a Jewish educator of many years, I can only say, “Amen”.