Why I Teach

Sixteen years ago today, on November 11, 1999, I walked into a classroom for the very first time as a teacher. I became a bona fide, “official” in-class teacher–chalk and all. (Well, chalk was on its way out, by then.)

I entered a sixth-grade class about a month after the beginning of a new school year. (A teacher needed to exit the school, and I was available to replace him, so I started “later” into the school year).

Yes, I was nervous. Yes, I felt tremendous anxiety and yes, I was frightened. But after the first few days of teaching on a regular basis, those feelings began to dissipate. I began to flashback to some of the outstanding teachers I had growing up and even thought of some of the really poor teachers I had. I questioned myself, if I had what it would take. I wanted to emulate my favorite teachers and, at the same time, I wanted to make sure I did not repeat the mistakes of the poor teachers, that I had witnessed.

And as time went by, and as I became more and more comfortable in my role as a teacher, things began to change. I started seeing growth; I saw my students mature and learn; I saw them come to enjoy learning. While the light bulb went on in their heads, it went on in my head, as well: I fell in love with teaching!

So, why do I teach? It is a profession in which you can make a serious difference in a person’s life. A teacher is much more than a teacher. He or she is an educator, a mentor, a therapist, a psychologist and a pseudo-parent.

A teacher is also a partner in an investment. That investment is the student who sits in front of you, day after day. And like a monetary investment, it may take years to see an ROI (return on investment). But one day, the kid you taught back in 5th grade is now a parent herself. And that “little kid,” who is now all grown up, calls to ask for advice on a real-life crisis. But why call me? Why call and ask this kind of advice from ME? Is it because I am a rabbi? No, she replies: It is because you believed in me and had faith in me. I need you to have that same faith in me now to help me through this.

And after 16 years in a classroom and as many years teaching privately, I see firsthand the benefits of being a teacher. It is not about the books or the homework or the tests and CERTAINLY it is not about the grades: It is about the child and his/her future.

As a teacher, we have to deal with so many things in and out of the classroom. At times, we might lose sight of the real, true reason we teach: to help mold the next generation. We teach to motivate and inspire. We teach to ensure the preservation of the Mesorah of Torah, the living Word of Hashem. We teach because there is a part of us that feels a passion to educate and train.

And whether I am teaching a young child or an adult education class, I personally gain so much from those lessons! We are taught in Massechet Ta’anit (7a) that:

אמר רבי חנינא: “הרבה למדתי מרבותי, ומחבירי – יותר מרבותי, ומתלמידי – יותר מכולן

Rabbi Chanina said: I have learned much from my teachers; and from my colleagues, more than from my teachers: and from my students, I have learned more than from anyone else.”

In the field of education, no truer words have been written!

It is my students who have taught me more than any teacher. No matter what age students are sitting in front of me, I always feel that way: with their questions, challenging insights and open minds, I find myself always re-thinking an approach or an explanation. I hear ideas from them that never even occurred. to me. And, thus, I grow as well. I love teaching THEM, and at the same time, I love LEARNING from my students.

I hope for your sake, dear reader, that you had a Mrs. Hammer in your life. You know, THE teacher who really made a difference in your life? It was 1970 and I entered 7th grade with a deep-seated hatred of math and KNOWING (so I thought) that I was the worst student on Earth in that area of study. And then, Mrs Joyce Hammer came into my life and literally from DAY ONE, inspired me; she helped me; she encouraged me. (Forty-five years later, I can tell still you what we learned that first day in math!) She did not just teach me the problems in the textbook. She took the time to get me to believe in myself. She took an interest in ME as a person and not just another student in class. And from HER (and other fantastic teachers in my life), I learned what a teacher truly is and what a teacher can accomplish. (I ended up doing straight A work in math though college…except for Geometry. That area of math and I still do not get along together.)

As I begin year 17 in teaching, I say a silent prayer to Hashem to help me help my kids, my students. Each one, no matter if the student is 10 or 75, is precious and someone who can be inspired. Each one can learn and grow. And each one can inspire ME and teach ME as we go through this journey of education together.

Thank you Mrs. Hammer and thank you to all of the great teachers that inspired me and helped me become a teacher today. It is to you that all of MY students owe an everlasting debt of gratitude.

Now, it’s time to hit the books!

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.