Hadrakhah as a Subversive Activity

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

This weekend I was back east keynoting a beginning of the year teacher’s conference. My reward was a chance to spend an hour with the madrikhim (high school teaching aides) that were at the conference. A few observations before I tell you the story. We had the usual “Jewish” percentages, twenty or so girls, three boys. We had eighth graders but no seniors. I doubt that there were many juniors. Fourteen of the twenty-five came from one school, about six from another. About two thirds of these kids were tutors, not classroom assistants. Many of the remaining kids work as “shadows” for students with special needs.

Now, here is where the real learning comes in. Few of these kids have had “bad” experiences they could recall from Jewish education. The most interesting confession was Josh who admits that the problem was what he had missed by attending his congregational school. Likewise, there are few succinct good experiences in their Jewish education. When we look at what they have had to say, most of the good experiences and most of the bad experiences have been teachers. Sometimes groups of kids, but most of the time, teachers. The surprise answer, however, was that these kids who have given up chunks of their own limit free time to work as madrikhim, have no great memories of madrikhim. They have no bad memories of madrikhim, either. The madrikh, for them, was the guy who sat on the window still bored while the teacher taught. I suspect that is not unique.

All of a sudden, I threw out the rest of my workshop and begin talking about how their work as a madrikh or madrikhah can change the way their teacher teaches, and change the way their teachers work with them in the classroom. Here are the things I taught them.

[1] Greet everyone you see in the building—and especially their students as they enter their class. This was validated as these madrikhim talked about how good greetings from madrikhim had made them feel.

[2] Know where to sit in the classroom and especially where to sit during services, assemblies, and other gatherings. Sit with the students who need you. Who is alone? Who can you keep out of trouble? Where would your teacher most want you? Even if teachers stand in the back, show them how to sit with kids!

[3] If you are tutoring or working one on one, begin every session with questions about your student. Get to know them. Show them that you are interested in them.

[4] If you are a shadow for a child with special needs, find out what he or she needs from you. Know how you can contribute to his or her success.

[5] And this is the big one. When the teacher assigns seat work, art projects, stuff that requires students to work on their own, the madrikh should scan the room, figure out which small group could most use their help (often the ADD cluster) and say to the teacher, “Why don’t I work with Brad, Gavin, and Phil? ” After a while the teacher can figure out how to say, “Why don’t you work with x-group while I work with the rest of the class.” Likewise, if there is a kid who is behind for one reason or an other, the madrikh (or madrikhah) needs to volunteer, “Why don’t I take Tiffany into the hall and help her catch up,” so that the teacher can grasp the idea.

In this way, madrikhim can change the classrooms they work in. But, in the same way, we educators can change the status quo, too. We can do some simple things.

[1] We can train teachers and show them ways that creative use of madrikhim can make their classrooms more successful.

[2] We can support our madrikhim in the creation and execution of a high profile all school event that will grant them visibility and status.

[3] Madrikhim need more than a teacher, they need a coach who can help them to maximize the potential of their situation.