Teacher: Love Your Student

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A young teacher described  this episode which occurred early in her teaching career:

“One beautiful Spring morning when I arrived at school, I was surprised to see a youngster waiting at the door.  ‘It’s locked,’ he said sadly.  His expression brightened as I began to fumble for my keys.  ‘You’re a teacher!’ he exclaimed in obvious delight.

“As I  slipped the key into the lock and opened the door, I looked at him and smiled.  ‘What makes you think that?’ I asked him, amused and pleased in no small measure by his reaction.

“He looked directly into my eyes and spoke softly but with respect.  ‘You have the key.’

“I was both humbled and overwhelmed at the magnitude of his simple observation, by the implication it carried, and the responsibility I bore simply by possessing ‘key.’  Without question, this young student’s comment to me was among the most significant of my entire teaching career.   Not a day went by when, upon arriving at school, I did not recall it.”

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik taught that “teaching involves more than the transmission of knowledge and understanding. It requires empathy between teacher and student, and a sharing of feelings, thought and motives. There is an interaction of personalities, an exchange of values and insights.” To teach is to know how to unlock not only the mind, but the heart, feeling and interest of every student, as well. There is no master key. “What we require is the warm embrace as much as the brilliant idea; sympathetic understanding, true befriending, and a human reaching out: a suggestion that we care; the teaching role is inadequate.”

We need the key.

Is there a standardized lesson plan from which we can derive instruction as to how to transmit more than just the data, the uninspired information of our subject to our students?

Listen to The Master Teacher Himself, G-d, teaching a lesson to his star pupil, Moshe. The lesson’s goal was to convey the specifics of charity – terumah – needed for erecting G-d’s sanctuary.  The lesson begins with general instructions.  “Speak to the children of Israel, that they may take unto Me an offering,” and then moves on to details of implementation. The terumah, Moshe is told, may be offered from gold, silver, copper, skins, wood, oils and stones.”

Facts.  Knowledge.  Information.  These are, of course, necessary but not nearly sufficient for the Teacher who wants to not only teach but uplift and inspire.  G-d adds to these basic instructions feeling and emotion, Veasu li mikdash veshachanti betocham – and let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.

It is in these words that we are given insight into the true art of teaching.

The Kotzker notes that G-d does not say that He will dwell in his midst, but rather “in their midst.”

The real lesson is very clearly not about facts and figures but of charity.  As such, its greatest value and greatest lesson is in character development.  Each individual must have ample room and easy access within his being for G-d to enter and remain as a permanent resident, betocham mamash.  Ultimately, all good and effective teaching must arouse pleasant feelings and responses.  This is a lesson all teachers must remember when they teach.  It is the responsibility of the teacher to teach in a way that arouses positive feelings.  It is not, as too many teachers presume, the students responsibility to create within himself such feelings.

By showing our students respect and love, as G-d showed Moshe, we invite our students into the wonder, awe and power of what we teach.  And even if our students do not always grasp the “whys and the wherefores,” they should always come away from our lessons knowing that they are worthy and cherished.

In his words to Moshe, G-d carefully instructs that the Mikdash be constructed li – for Me. But, of course! What other reason might there be in constructing a Mikdash if not in the sharing of G-d’s spirit and knowledge?  Rashi comments: “Let them make to the glory of My name a place of holiness.” Success in imparting Torah knowledge can only be measured by the ultimate affect the learning has on the total being of the student. If a student’s actions, thoughts and responses are Mikdash-like, the educational process is successful.  That is, the student must learn the stuff of the lesson – but unless he or she does so in a context of respect and honor, it is only half a lesson.

The full lesson only happens when Mechanchim – the educational producers – understand that the for Me aspect of Mikdash requires that knowledge be delivered not only to the head, but also to the heart; that the lesson taught must ultimately touch the student’s heart and emotion.  Such a lesson can only be taught by a living and caring teacher.  A creative curriculum is not enough.

The rabbis taught: Anyone who teaches Torah in public and does not make the words as pleasant to those listening as honey and milk mixed together – it were better that he not teach the words at all (Shir Hashirim Rabba 4:11).

The Kotzker once asked, “Where is the Mishkan of G-d?” He promptly responded: “Wherever He will be let in.”  G-d feels welcome wherever His attributes of kindness, benevolence, forgiveness, and tolerance are part of the daily routine and atmosphere.  If not? “An animal is better than a Sage without sensitivity to people’s feelings”  (Seder Eliahu Rabba 6:7).

Producing the Mikdash as Hashem instructed required enormous efforts. The Avot D’Rebi Natan teaches that G-d instilled His Shechina upon Israel only when He was assured of their willingness to work hard and invest maximum melacha.  How much more effort, devotion, imagination and creativity is required to produce a student just as G-d expects?  Those building the Mikdash benefited from Moshe’s loving guiding hand and spirit, which eased their burden, pressure and anxiety.

Teaching a Talmid, we are often left to our own devices, inadequacies, insecurities and prejudices, and with Moshe-less supervision. Yet, we know that G-d does not accept the task “for Me” unless effort, devotion, and maximum melacha are ever present.  To succeed at our task in a way that honors G-d means that we must honor our students.  We must respect them where they are, not where we think they “should be.”

An example of the respect and consideration can be understood in ancient examples and in more modern ones.  The recent confrontations with extremists in Israel about the separation of men and women calls to mind the wisdom and grace of Rebbetzin Batsheva Kanievsky, of blessed memory, as reported on the Vos Iz Neias website.

According to Israeli news site B’chadrei Chareidim, R’ Yitzchok Kolodetzky spoke about his mother in law today in Modiin Ilit, recalling a time that Rebbetzin Kanievsky returned home from the Lederman Shul with a group of women, one of whom was not dressed modestly.

“A man who was at the house began to scream at her and degrade her in front of everyone,” reminisced R’ Kolodetzky. “The Rabbanit would not tolerate such abusive behavior and retorted, ‘We do not behave like this. Don’t you dare set foot in my house because this is not our way. We influence people with ways that are pleasant, and not by embarrassing them.’”

On another occasion, R’ Kolodetsky reports, his father-in-law Hagaon R’ Chaim Kanievsky was ready to go outside but a group of women waiting to see the Rebbetzin blocked his way, making it impossible for him to pass.  One of the men who had been in the house shouted at the women for them to clear the way. The Rabbanit promptly corrected him, “Here we don’t scream, but rather speak to everyone pleasantly.”

Imagine how much more our students might learn if we took Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s loving advice in every instance of our teaching?  How much more firmly they would walk in the ways of knowledge and wisdom if we raised up their hearts and souls as well as their minds? It is common knowledge that Jews from all communities and backgrounds were attracted to Yiddishkeit because of Rebbetzin Kanievsky’s sympathy, empathy, unconditional love and compassion.

The Aron, considered the permanent abode of Torah knowledge and wisdom, is cited by the Chachomim as existing miraculously, without reliance on a measured and specified site (mekom aron eino min a’mida, veomed b’nes).  While it is true that we find students emerging unblemished from schools whose focus is almost solely on quantity of pages and chapters covered with almost no attention placed on love, sensitivity and sympathy, with no concern for feelings and emotions, why should we rely on miracles when it involves our children?

Surely, when the key is lost, it is almost impossible to replace and each unopened door leaves a precious student outside. Love students – don’t just teach them !

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications & marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.