Can Everyone Teach?

Motzei Shabbos Read: “Like religion, the subject of teaching inspires long, heated, usually open-ended, arguments. Among teachers too there exists lots of professional pride, mostly toward others. Teachers, as a group, usually consider themselves experts in their field.”

By Rabbi Dovid Wichnin – Di Yiddishe Heim, Summer 5736, 1976

Rabbi Dovid Vichnin a”h was primarily known as the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Tiferes Bochurim in Morristown NJ and the Rov of the Tzemach Tzedek shul in Monsey NY. Earlier in his life, he served as a school principal in Boston MA. He passed away in 5755/1995.

Teaching, has more connoisseurs than adherents. Almost everyone has an opinion about this art and about the people who practice it. They usually begin “I am not a teacher nor an educator, but I do think this method is absolutely . . . “ or, “This teacher doesn’t know how to teach”. or, ‘Wow he’s a great educator!” etc.

Like religion, the subject of teaching inspires long, heated, usually open-ended, arguments. Among teachers too there exists lots of professional pride, mostly toward others. Teachers, as a group, usually consider themselves experts in their field. They feel they understand the child well, have first-hand knowledge of his strengths and his weaknesses, his aspirations and desperations. If something goes wrong in the classroom itis usually blamed on outside factors rather than their own shortcomings. This strong sense of self-esteem often prevents many a teacher from heeding the advice and counsel of a colleague.

Ironically this sense of pride is only felt towards others, but not about one’s self. Teachers are not generally proud of their calling, especially the ones who teach younger grades, and even more especially frum teachers. Perhaps the lack of self-esteem comes from the fact that teaching is something almost everyone is called upon to do at one time or another in various forms and contexts. Whether itbe the parent, the boss at the plant, the rabbi of a shul, or the president of the country, all have to teach and educate those in their charge. If everybody is doing it,it’s naturally hard to feel proud and unique because the teacher is just doing more of the same.

Yet every generation is only as good as its teachers. One would therefore expect the ‘formal’ teachers—those trained for that purpose—to be people of high standards and proper moral standing. Even that has been abandoned nowadays. Teachers are trained to be good technicians in the mechanics of information transfer and class management. Such intangibles as honesty, integrity, devotion, moral commitment and a sense of destiny are considered of secondary importance at best. Of course today’s generation of teachers is a product of their predecessors so that we cannot blame only our contemporaries for this sorry state.

While the above is mainly applicable to teachers in general, itis also true of Torah teachers and educators who, in addition to lack of self respect, lack of adequate preparation, and universal criticism, have their unique joys and sorrows to contend with.

One can cite an avalanche of quotations from our holy sources showing how great and lofty are those who teach Torah to others, especially to children. They are compared to the highest, most noble beings, while their work is likened to G-d’s own Work’—’ ‘Who teaches the Torah to the Jewish nation”. Halachically we are (of course) urged to fear and respect our teachers (almost) as much as we fear G-d — Moro Rabcho Kmoro Shomayim say our sages in Pirkei Avos. On the other hand the halacha is extremely demanding of teachers. It treats very strictly those who do not live up to the highest standards of performance and integrity in their work and dedication. In fact the Torah allows the usually prohibited act of ruthless competition to be used as a tool for the improvement of teaching. Teachers who renege on their duty are actually threatened with grave consequences.

In a way, teachers or mechanchim (Torah educators) are like other Jews, only more so, to paraphrase a well- known cliché, but because their contribution is so valuable and so revered, their iniquities are reprimanded in harsher ways. As is true about the general fateful history of our nation, we are chosen for greatness and great we must remain, or else. . . To become as careless and apathetic as other nations, to give up the ultimate rewards in order to avoid the risk of ultimate punishment is an alternative which is not open to us.

All this however, is acceptable when and if itcomes from Heaven. True, a person usually becomes a teacher by choice; usually but not always. But what if after choosing teaching as a way of life, one suddenly (or gradually) realizes that itis much too difficult or unsuitable an occupation? The mechanech is suddenly faced with powerful dissuasion and even outright restrictions about contemplating a change of occupation. Especially nowadays, when teaching is deemed a spiritual, life-giving activity within the Jewish community, a teacher considering change is made to feel as if he were a traitor to Jewish survival.

And here is the painful irony. On the one hand, a mechanech is made to feel that the future of every child in his charge as a Jew and as a mentch depends upon his, the teacher’s, performance; that he must therefore be devoted every minute to every child. That lack of absolute dedication constitutes an act of cheating on the child’s best chances for mental and spiritual development to which he is surely entitled, etc. That the teacher must always search for better, newer, and more effective methods to challenge and inspire the students. That endless lesson preparations, ways of assuring an exciting lesson delivery, working out interesting home assignments etc., are his duties.

As if that were not sufficient, the teacher is also expected to be in the proper mood when he faces the class no matter what kind of hardships he may be afflicted with in his own private life. For if he upsets a child, he may have damaged that student’s interest and excitement in Yiddishkeit for years to come. Surely that’s a very heavy burden to carry. On simpler terms, if the teacher went to sleep late the night before, because he stayed up with a crying child or for any other reason, and lacks his usual vigor the next morning, he has already committed a moral and perhaps a legal misdemeanor.

In the light of the above, we should expect that the community in general and parents of students in particular would respect and admire the individual who has put himself in a position of such hazardous responsibility and hardship for their sake. We would think that the least the community of parents and other responsible individuals could do would be to treat the mechanech—melamed as graciously as possible in dignified honor, proper remuneration and gratitude. Let it be made clear that we are not referring here to the master teacher or expert educator of which there are very few, even less than in other less complex professions. (Even these outstanding mechanchim are regrettably considered to be on the lower rungs of the frum social ladder). We are talking here about the majority of teachers and mechanchim who are the mainstay of our educational apparatus. It’s what happens to them that really matters.

And what really happens? They are not respected, neither are they valued. They are neither envied nor admired. The general assumption is that most of them became teachers because they couldn’t do anything else for a living! In other words they, the mechanchim, are being equated with the shlemiels of the community, a kind of a necessary but unworthy bunch.

Here is a vicious cycle. Teachers are treated disrespectfully. The students who of course knows exactly in what esteem his teacher is held, especially if he is blessed with the kind of zealous parents who never hesitate to criticize his teacher or other teachers in the child’s presence, perhaps even using vivid negative terminology — that student naturally hopes to grow up and become anything but a teacher. When the time comes for him to choose an occupation he will surely avoid the teaching field unless . . . unless he really can’t help it. Then of course he will be confirming the “traditional” assumption that those who become teachers cannot do anything else.

The ones who really make sure that their children won’t be teachers are the teachers themselves. Just look and ask around and see how many teachers raised their children to follow in their professional footsteps. The few that did are the exceptions that validate the rule.

This undesirable situation will not change without some drastic remedies. It surely wont change by giving the teachers more mussar and sermons on the necessity to increase devotion and dedication and contemplate the great responsibility which is theirs. All this approach can accomplish is to further frustrate those who are already ridden with feelings of guilt and inadequacy and failure about their lack of perfection. (The ones who do not feel guilty will never be moved by strong words of rebuke and moralizing in any way). All that harping on teachers’ shortcomings will accomplish will be to scare away potential candidates, who will rightfully feel that teaching and chinuch is a job of enormous demands that offers very meager returns.

We must rather make teaching an attractive endeavor to the potential teacher while he or she is still a student in the yeshiva or seminary. An educational drive must be undertaken by those whose words are respected in the community to convince parents and others to relate to teachers with the utmost honor in shul, in the market place, and above all at home. There must be a steady and consistent demand by community leaders that teachers be well-paid and well-praised. Teachers and mechanchim should be regarded as our real heroes for the way they maintain a daily routine of discipline, hard work, and dedication, more than those whose occasional acts of valor for Jewish causes are usually given the highest admiration.

Furthermore, only those who really want to teach should be encouraged to do so. Student-candidates should be carefully selected on the basis of their innate ability and interest in teaching. In turn, they should be guided by the Yeshiva or Girls’ Seminary administration in specially designed courses in the techniques of classroom management in all its ramifications. No one should be pressured into entering or remaining in chinuch if he or she does not feel completely comfortable there. A teacher should not have to feel that he is binding himself into a life-long commitment as soon as he accepts his first job.

Another important consideration is that teachers and mechanchim in general should be relieved from most other community activities. It has recently become fashionable for many a teacher to spend a lot of time and energy “working with” college students, neighbors, and pedestrians, but this is sometimes at the expense of their students. They have been persuaded to feel that these “outside” activities are the ones that really count, while teaching is just a lackluster, routine necessity but hardly a real accomplishment and the “right (real) thing”. Someone in authority should raise his voice and announce that while everyone else must contribute generously to “outside” enlightenment, the teacher’s main, first, and foremost responsibility is to the “inside segment” of Klal Yisroel which is sitting in the classroom and deserves all the time, talent, and energy that can be found for them lest they too decide to join the “outside” where the “action” is.

Strange and disturbing ideas are being heard lately from those who claim to be the teachers’ best friends. They claim that a little work on the “outside” is worth more than lots of toil on the “inside”. Their reasoning, though simplistic, is appealing and to a degree convincing: Teaching a child in Yeshiva until after high school costs huge sums of money and tens of thousands of teaching hours, yet when the student graduates, there is no guarantee about the kind of life he will lead nor the kind of home he will establish after marriage.

In short, a Yeshiva education, so very costly in financial and human terms, is indeed a risky investment. In the case of those Yeshivos which offer only an elementary grade education, the risk is of course much greater. The returns on the investment may be nil. On the other hand, these friends argue, a two-three year investment (or sometimes even less) in Jewish adults produces almost immediate results. In a relatively short while the new Baal Teshuva can be congratulated on the establishment of a new Chassidic home. Which venture pays off better? Isn’t the answer obvious?

This approach not only knocks the wind out of the teacher’s sails, but it also has the harmful effect of making his contribution seem unimportant and worthless to most people, unless he is working with “heimishe” children.

The above argument is fallacious for a number of reasons, Firstly, teaching Torah is important and worthwhile for its own sake in its own time, and not just for what it will accomplish for the students’ adult years. At every moment of the day or night, the world exists because of the learning of Torah, especially that of children and youth. While the Baal Teshuva only holds a promise of a home where Torah will be taught to children, the students in the Yeshiva already claim the fulfillment of that promise, now.

Secondly, the years which a child spends in the Yeshiva are certainly pure and holy to a large extent. They are permeated with Torah, Tefila, Mitzvos and other Jewishly inspiring activities. In the case of the average Baal Teshuva, however, the youthful years are lost to the individual as well as to the nation. Sometimes those years are not just empty, Jewishly speaking, but filled with acts and experiences which require many holy years and tears to rectify. (Often all this could have been avoided had a childhood teacher been the ideal kind with the proper knowledge, dedication, and parental cooperation). Who is to say which are the more important years in a life, the early years or the adult years?

Thirdly, this whole argument smacks of a dilution of all our traditional value system. For us in the Yeshiva community, and especially for those who are Lubavitcher chassidim, there is great pride in thoroughness. We cherish breadth, depth, and consistency, be it in Torah learning, practice of mitzvos, kind deeds, or human relations. We in fact disdain the momentary, the fleeting, and the superficial. These qualities are not easily achieved. There exists a kind of unwritten rule that whatever is too easily achieved is hardly worth that much. Such adherence to the authentic and the genuine in the human expression, which can only be achieved through arduous and long-lasting efforts, should make us more than a little suspicious of blitz-quick results.

Hence, in-depth teaching, refinement of the child’s character to make a real Yeshiva mentch out of him, is surely the preferred way, if only the opportunity is available. Naturally, in the case of straying adults, we don’t have much choice but to act quickly and settle at least temporarily for superficial, haphazard results. When the fire is blazing, consuming everything in sight, there is no time to search for the purest water and the best container, etc.

To return to our original question: “Can everyone reach?”, the answer is Yes! Everyone is obligated to share his material, mental, and spiritual blessings, no matter how meager, with others. There is always somebody who has much less, or even nothing at all, especially today, when ignorance rather than rebellion, misguidedness rather than atheism, are the prevalent evils. There are literally hundreds of thousands of Jews of all ages out there begging to be taught and guided. Even with those who seem to resist, itis mostly a quest ion of ‘breaking the ice”, after that itis pretty smooth sailing. It is just regrettable that this mammoth burden of lifesaving has been disproportionately assumed by a relatively small group of dedicated people while almost everyone else is occupying comfortable spectator seats with alternate reactions of praise, blame, or indifference.

The slightly different question, “Can everyone be a teacher?”, has a resoundingly different answer: NO! Being a teacher means undertaking complete responsibility for the total spiritual and mental development of many individuals, building the future ranks of Am Yisroel and its leadership. This awesome task should be entrusted to chosen people only, people who should then be held in the highest esteem and admiration by parents and all others. These men and women will deserve our respect because they will be teaching not just by verbal instruction, but by serving as living examples of a proper life.

The pupils will see before their eyes a person who is always punctual, thoroughly prepared in the subject matter, with definite plans how best to utilize every portion of class time in a creative manner. They will know well that their mechanech cherishes sincerity as well as performance, good character traits as well as good learning. They will know and feel that their teacher cares deeply for every one of them at all times. They will see that their teacher is a person who does not waste words, nor does he waste time in or out of class; they will never see him or her idling away precious hours—even in a shul. They will be proud of the fact that their mechanech respects others and is well respected in turn because of his high dedication to the lofty ideals of Torah.

In short, the student will become imbued with the proper midos, the highest aspirations in learning and yiras shomayim (fear of heaven) by a living example rather than by sermons and words of rebuke. When we will produce and nourish teachers of this caliber, we will have the merit to see a generation which will surely deserve to greet Moshiach Tzidkeinu very, very soon.

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