Jewish Classroom Management: A Good Offense (part two)

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

(To read Part One of this series, click here.)

Last time we talk about “sever panim yafot,” greeting students with a cheerful countenance. We talked about how a simple greeting can set a tone for a relationship with each student. In this unit we are going to talk about extending that sense of greeting throughout the lesson by focusing on Kavod ha-Talmid, the honor or each student.

A Prologue

Begin by reading this reflection by the Rav, Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchic.

Whether you are indebted to me as your teacher is a separate question. But I certainly am indebted to you as a teacher more than you are indebted to me as my students. Do you know why? Because a teacher always acquires more from his students than the students from the teacher. Our sages long ago declared: “I have learned much from my teachers, and from my colleagues more than from my teachers, but from my disciples more than from them all: [Ta’anit 7a]. Maimonides explained that just as “a small log can kindle a large one, the young student likewise enables the learned teacher to enhance his wisdom” [Hilkhot Talmud Torah 5:13].

…Quite often, when I prepare the shiur, I cannot find the right approach. I sit with the Gemara, but it is a difficult sugya [subject for study]… Sometimes, at night, I am completely in despair. When I come into the classroom and sit down with my students, I slowly begin to analyze the sugya. Suddenly a light goes on, like a light from some mysterious source, and I begin to understand why it was so difficult for me to prepare the shiur the night before. Somehow, my students always inspire me. Many of my shiurim are products of this consultation with my students…When I was young I used to compete with my students. The shiur used to be more of a symposium than a lecture. I let every student express his own understanding of the sugya. Many times I admitted in the classroom that the student was right and I was wrong. All this sharpened my mind and turned the study of Torah into a romance. (Related by the Rav in response to a presentation in his honor at the Yarhei Kallah, Boston, Mass., August 25, 1981.)

Honoring Students is a biblical mitzvah. Exodus 17.9 says: And Moses said to Joshua: “Choose for us men, and go to fight with Amalek” (Shmot 17:9). Rashi comments: “Choose for us,” that is, for me and for you; Moses treated Joshua as an equal. From here the Sages have said, “Let the honor of your student be held in esteem by you as your own honor” (Yorah Daiah 242:33).

Two stories make this clear: When Rabbi Akiva Eiger’s children were preparing his responsa for publication, Rabbi Eiger wrote to them: “Among the responsa, you will undoubtedly find many letters to those who have studied in my yeshiva. Please do not refer to them as my students, for I have never called anyone my student. How can I know who has learned more from whom?” (Introduction to Tshuvot Rav Akiva Eiger)

A teacher once came to the Hazon Ish and asked his advice about changing professions. S/he wanted to become a diamond polisher. “Aren’t you already a diamond polisher?” asked the Hazon Ish. (Biography of Hazon Ish, p.229)

Laws of Teacher Love

Here are some practical steps for showing respect for teachers.

1. If students do not understand, a teacher should not get angry—rather the teacher should repeat the lesson as many times as necessary until they understand. (Yad, Laws of Talmud Torah, 4:4, Yoreh De’ah 246:10,11)

2. A teacher can act angrily if their lack of learning comes from laziness. A teacher should be able to instill fear when necessary. (Ketubot 103b, Yad, Laws of Talmud Torah, 4:5, Yoreh De’ah 246: 11

3. A teacher must be interested in more than the subject matter. A teacher should also be interested in the student’s welfare. A teacher should help students with personal problems. (Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem pp. 16, 30.)

4. A teacher should be impartial. (Shabbat 10b, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem p. 33.)

5. A teacher should admit his/her own mistakes. (Zevahim 101a, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem p. 22.)

6. A teacher should not make promises or threats that will not be kept. (Sukkah 58b, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem p. 35.

7. A teacher should not use sarcasm or ridicule. A teacher should discipline in a quiet, dignified, and positive manner. (Bava Metzia 58b, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem p. 32.

8. A teacher must constantly learn (Rashi on Sh’mot 4:1-3)

So think about making your teaching a romance.