Monday, August 6, 2012

the gift of time

Do you know the biggest problem teachers face in their classroom? Classroom management. This means that a teacher has to figure out how to meaningfully engage x amount of students for x amount of time while transmitting x amount of information. The teacher usually has just one shot to transmit this information, and so, all different techniques are devised so that the transmission is optimal. The teacher is told not to talk till he has everyone's attention, be very precise in his message, be well-prepared and know his material cold, focus on lecturing while saving the questions for later, lest the students get distracted. And at the end, there is a quiz/test/homework to see what has been retained.

All of this makes perfect sense... if you are dealing with ideal scenario. But what if the students just came in from recess where they beat another team at kickball and all they can think about is the next game? What if there is a fire drill in the middle of the class and the lesson time is curtailed? What if the teacher gets asked a question to which he does not have an answer, or, as he is explaining the material, he himself realizes that something does not make sense? Finally, what if everything went smoothly on the surface, but the test/quiz/homework does not produce high results?

It just hit me on Friday, and it's surprising that it took me this long, after all my teaching/homeschooling experiences. I was teaching parsha to the boys. I was using the easel to illustrate. Both boys were here and engaged, asking questions. 8 yo got a binder and drew his own illustrations. Both boys called out the Ten Commandments. Then we got on the subject of zachor/shamor. (Briefly: there is a discrepancy between what it says in the Ten Commandments in Shemot and in Devarim, one place says to remember Shabbos, another to keep it.) 6 yo immediately piped in: "zachor veshamor bedibur echad" from Lecha Dodi. He has been going to shul with my husband on Friday nights and listening. I asked him if he knew what it meant and he did not. I told the boys that it's funny that they know the answer without knowing the question. I explained that Hashem said both words at the same time and tried to get boys to both say one each, to make it sound like it. 6 yo got frustrated and left, kicking. He laid down on the floor in the adjacent room. I kept on teaching parsha to 8 yo as if nothing happened.

During Friday night dinner, we ask parsha questions. Usually 8 yo knows everything, and 6 yo sometimes participates, sometimes does not. This week, he was on the roll. He knew a lot, named 9 of the Ten Commandments, answered about Shema, etc. Obviously even though he was not in the same room, doing his own thing, he was listening. He was learning. 

I realized that in order to teach, I do not need an attentive student. I just need an interested one. I also realized that parsha comes up every year, and whichever points the kids will not pick up this year, they will pick up next. Or they will pick up Chumash and look it up themselves. Or they will hear it in shul when they are older. Or they will pick it up from other conversations. I do not have to squeeze everything in efficiently right now. I have the gift of time.

The gift of time also means that I do not have to know everything. I can answer that I do not know, look it up, and come back to it. I can correct myself. I can tweak my answers. I am allowed to experiment and make mistakes. I am allowed to be human. I am allowed to take a day off from teaching and nothing will happen. We will make it up sometime.

I don't know why all of this did not hit me sooner. Now there is no need to demand excellence, just effort. If there is no effort, then the time is not right. Come back to it when they are interested and things will go smoothly.


I told all of this to my mother, and she told me about my sister, who was taking English language courses back in Moldova. As a middle-schooler, she was deemed too young to sit by herself with college-age kids ( college started at 16, but still), so my mother had to sit with her. This was after a full day of school, so she tended to climb under her desk to play. However, as my mother remarked, whenever a teacher asked her a question, she would pop up to answer, and he let her be and learn like that.

Oh, and she turned out OK. She has a PhD and is working on a post-doc.

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