In the yearbook from my 8th grade graduation from Jewish Day School, we were asked to cite a quote we found meaningful. While I no longer remember the quote I chose, one student’s quote remains present until today. “The greatest impacts in life are the ones you never know you make”. My peer quoted his grandfather. As I entered the world of Jewish education, one decade ago, I came to recognize how resonant this message is for the educator.
Mark Shinar, Head of General Studies at SAR High School shared a Dvar Torah at an opening staff meeting about the challenge of teaching. Mark compared the teacher to a seed planter: “one who plants seeds in tears reaps in joy” הזורעים בדמעה ברנה יקצורו (Tehillim 126:5). Yet unlike a farmer, who often is blessed to see her crops yield food, a teacher cannot be guaranteed that same joy. As educators, we plant seeds in the soil of our students. If we’re lucky, we’ll see some of the fruits of some of our hard work. Perhaps a student will express appreciation. Perhaps a student will modify his behavior ever so slightly. Perhaps a student will seek connections between the text we teach and real life. And perhaps we will never see the moments of implementation and fruition. We merely have to plant the seed, pray for our students, wish them well, and remind them that we will always be there to cheer them on and support them long after they learn in our classrooms.
Earlier this year, I had a check-in with the teachers implementing Ayeka’s pedagogy at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Philadelphia. These teachers understand both of these adages. The Judaic Studies teachers with whom I met engage in the tireless work of preparing, implementing, and reflecting on their teaching. Each teacher cares deeply about teaching in a way that engages the students beyond the intellectual. Each teacher seeks to find his or her way to speak and listen in a way that honors and encourages student growth.
One teacher shared moments of success — when her 11th and 12th grade male students sought connections between Rav Soloveitchik’s paradigms for being a person in Lonely Man of Faith and their own lived experience. Another shared the way he is seeking to truly understand his students assumptions so he can reach them where they are in order to help move them forward. Teachers engaged one another about the realities of engaging in adult conversation with adolescents who are still in the process of development. One teacher shared that she only now has a developed understanding of regular ritual prayer. While she can teach her students the value of consistent prayer, she recognizes that her students, under 18, have years of continued development to come to a deeper awareness of its value.
As we imagined what “success” might look like for their students, we imagined how student affect, behavior, and cognition may change as a result of a year of learning Torah in each class. Yet we acknowledged the inherent limitation in such thinking. It may be disheartening to acknowledge the dissonance of what we hope to accomplish and who are students appear to be at the end of a school year. Yet we cannot lose faith.
Perhaps the greatest gift we can give ourselves as teachers is the gift of patience. And recognition that the seeds we plant may blossom at a time when we never even know it.