Jewish Early Childhood According to Rabbi Yishmael Ben Yossi

Worthy Teachers

Idie Benjamin and Dale Sides Cooperman

Back in March, there was a great deal of buzz in the news about a mother in New York City who is suing her daughter’s preschool for not properly preparing her daughter to take the E.R.B. The E.R.B. is an assessment used by private schools in New York City to determine who should be admitted into their kindergartens. The mother says she paid $19,000 a year and did not get what her money’s worth.

The media and parent blogs focused less on the appropriateness of testing young children and more on what an early childhood program is worth. We saw all these news reports as a set induction to prod you into thinking about your “worth,” or the value of an early childhood educator. The issue of “worth” is certainly on the minds of the teachers in these programs who, we know, are poorly paid. defines worth as

1.         The quality that renders something desirable, useful, or valuable

2.         Material or market value

For teachers, low pay presents the message that what they do is not valued, that the work they do does not have much worth. This is not a new issue to the early childhood profession or to the world of Jewish early childhood. And much as we would like, we cannot solve that problem in this article, nor is it our objective right now.

What we do want to talk about is the worth of what you do. At the end of the school year, we are all feeling a little worn out. Being a teacher is hard work. It is intellectually, emotionally, and physically challenging. In and of itself, challenge doesn’t have to be considered a negative. Challenge stimulates us and gets the creative juices flowing. But after months of this kind of work, we can feel not only drained; we may be questioning what we are doing with our lives. No matter how much you love what you do, when you aren’t compensated enough, you might begin to question your worth.

As the school year comes to a close, we would like to pay homage to all of the hard working teachers of our youngest children. Here is your worth. You lay the groundwork of our children’s Jewish education and engagement with our community. You welcome families and help connect them to the larger Jewish community. You do holy work.

There is a story of a teacher who was attending a dinner party. Most of the guests did not know each other. The hosts had everyone at the table say what they did for a living. There were doctors, lawyers, and accountants. When it was her turn, they asked, “What do you do?” She answered, “I make a difference; I am a teacher.”

As the poster says, “It will be a great day when the schools have all the money they need and the navy has to have a bake sale to buy a battleship.” Until that day, we want you to know that what you do is of value. It has worth. It has meaning and relevance. We thank you for all that you do, and there are countless families who hold you in the highest esteem, and owe you a debt of gratitude.

The summer is a great time for reflection and growth. Step back from this past school year and take a deep breath. Take the time to think what worked and more importantly, what didn’t. What new ideas did you learn about at a conference or a workshop that you now have the time to integrate into your philosophy, approach, and classroom? Read the latest journals and books and see what researchers and experiences teachers are sharing about what they know about our field. What changes your thinking about what you have been doing? Take the time to understand one of the newer trends and approaches in our field—Emergent Curriculum, Reggio Emilia, etc. Take a risk. How could you begin to bring these ideas into your classroom? Network with your colleagues. Ask questions. Be willing to learn.

If you have the opportunity, clean out your classroom closet. What treasures have gotten buried over the years? Go through your files and idea piles, and keep what you know has value, the strategies and ideas that are aligned with your philosophy—and the philosophy of your school. Explore the web but be careful; teacher sites are often worksheet oriented. Look for newsletter templates (some are hiding in your computer) and find new uses for your digital camera’s photos. Spend an afternoon or two in the children’s section of a book store. Leisurely read and find some new classics.

Relax. Take some time just for yourself. And realize that what you have chosen to do is worthwhile and valued.

As teachers who became administrators, we have been where you are. But we challenge you to remember this: We ask children to come to school each and every day, ready to take risks, to make mistakes and to learn. How can we approach each day without the same mindset? We are “teacher as learner.”

“Rabbi Yishmael ben Yossi said, “One who studies Torah in order to teach will be granted the ability to study and to teach. One who studies in order to do is granted the ability to study, to teach, to observe, and to do.” (Pirkei Avot 4:6)