The Heymishe Classroom

by Idie Benjamin and Dale Sides Cooperman

In a previous article Going Past Pretty to Sacred:  What Early Childhood Classrooms Can Be, we wrote about early childhood classrooms as sacred spaces. A “scared space” may seem serious and solemn when referring to an early childhood classroom, but more than anything, it is a place of safety, comfort and joy.  Creating a sacred space begins with creating a heymishe classroom.

What does a heymishe classroom look like? What does a heymishe classroom feel like?  Heymishe is a Yiddish word that connotes a variety of qualities: warmth, informality, and comfort. If haus is a house, then heymishe is a home. A heymishe classroom is a homey classroom—one in which students find warmth, caring, trust,  safety, creature comforts and comfort in relationships, all the things we know children need in order to  thrive.

We know that in the beginning of every school year when new children enter our programs, some will have some difficulty with separation. We know how to comfort the children and their parents, speaking to all the developmental and emotional issues that are a part of separating from loved ones and entering a new environment

But do we ever consider how radical a departure a classroom is from the child’s home? At home, a child goes from room to room at their whim, knowing they are safe. There is a kitchen if you are hungry. There is a comfy couch, windows to look out, and bedrooms with all of their favorite things. And school is one room where the children must stay, and often the door is closed. How different! How frustrating! How scary! And I am only two or three. Is it possible for you to explain this to me?

In the first weeks of school, a two-year-old was having a very rough time. Then one day, several days after school had begun, the teachers rearranged the furniture, so that now the climber with the platform was next to a large window overlooking the playground and a beautiful field and then woods. Soon after she arrived, one of the teachers put the crying child up on the platform hoping that the view would distract her and she might be calmer. She stopped crying immediately. Was it like home to look out a window? Did it make the classroom seem bigger? The teachers noted that she had often attempted to get out of the classroom door. Now that she had the view she stopped doing this. She stopped asking for her mother and began to explore the classroom and participate.

In another school, there was a two year old who only wanted to “escape” from the classroom. On several occasions, the director took her on walks in the building, visiting other classrooms and seeing other children engaged and happy. Perhaps this child just needed to see where she was and become familiar with her new surroundings. Ultimately, this child was one of the first to know all the teachers names, and even began to greet them when she saw them in the hall.

What do we “see” when we hear the world “institution?” That is the “home” where we do not want to ever have to live. We have a visual image of a cold and unwelcoming place, with cinderblock walls and linoleum tile. It has a rigid routine, and there is always pudding on Tuesday even if you want something else. We have to ask ourselves – “Would we want to spend our days in a classroom that felt this way?” How do the spaces that we create feel to a young child?

Heymishe comes from a world in which the home was a place of security, warmth and love. Our classrooms must provide a safe nest in which the children feel nurtured. Safe, nurtured children feel free to explore and learn and make friends. Children come to our schools in all shapes, sizes, and learning styles. But the Torah teaches that their souls were present at Mt. Sinai, and they all have a share in Torah and our community.

Creating a Heymishee Classroom

How can we create a heymishee classroom? What does a heymishee classroom look like? What does a heymishe classroom feel like?

  1. A heymishee classroom is heymishee. It has elements of home like soft, comfy furniture and rugs covering the cold tile. It is visually attractive but not overwhelming with too many things on the wall and clutter on high and low shelves. An important element of almost every philosophy of early childhood is a dedication to aesthetics – having beautiful classrooms that contain many of the nurturing and familiar elements of a home.
  2. A heymishee classroom is one in which all students feel welcome and valued. Teachers stand at the door and greet every student (and parent or caregiver), every session, with a smile and a personal comment. They also stand at the door at the end of every session to say an appropriate l’hitra’ot.
  3. A heymishee classroom is one where children are respected as individuals. We accept that just like us, children have great days and tough days. Blankets, stuffed friends, and all sorts of lovees are always allowed just like at home. We are adults, and we don’t give up our lovees or comforts easily. Chocolate or coffee, anyone?
  4. A heymishee classroom is one in which the teacher has a personal connection with each child.
  5. A heymishee classroom is one in which children learn and live Jewish values because the teacher gently infuses Jewish ways to express feelings and ideas, Jewish ways to behave, to talk, to think.

Our colleague Judy Aronson reminds us that there’s a trickle down effect. Heymishee classrooms grow out of heymishee schools. It begins with the directors and boards of synagogues or JCCs. Teachers who are nurtured, respected, acknowledged and loved are teachers who set the same tone for their classrooms.

A heymishee classroom is like a warm bowl of chicken soup or macaroni and cheese: it’s all about comfort, familiarity and safety. It is good for the soul, the heart, and the body – the whole child. And it is a sacred space.

The original version of this article appeared in Carol Starin’s Let Me Count The Ways, Torah Aura Productions.