“I have learned much from my teachers; from my colleagues more than from my teachers; and from my students more than all” (Talmud, Taanit 7b).
Experience truly is the best teacher, and while I have been teaching Jewish students in many settings for 30 years, I continually learn from them. I have learned what it takes to be an educator, and particularly a b’nai mitzvah educator, from supervisors, colleagues and students as well as from their parents.
What follows are what I have come to think of as the Ten Commandments (though I am sure that others would add to the list) for b’nai mitzvah teachers. Parents and students can think of them as qualities to look for or consider as they enter into partnership with a teacher to prepare for this special day.
I. Thou shalt recognize each student as an individual.
I must always remember that the student I am teaching is different from my last student. Each b’nai mitzvah student enters the process in a different place. Some are excited and motivated, some are resigned, some are in between. They come with their own ways of learning and approaching challenges. While the tried-and-true strategies may work for most or in most cases, each young person requires a little something distinct, unique to him or her.
II. Thou shalt remember it is their first time.
Each of us comes to our professional work with an expertise, whether we are an electrician, a lawyer or a marine biologist. Most people who seek out our professional expertise do so because they do not have the necessary knowledge (you wouldn’t want me messing with your electrical work). While I have worked with hundreds of b’nai mitzvah students, I try to remember that this is the first time for this student and the first time for this family with this particular child.
III. Thou shalt create a nurturing space.
My goal is to create a space in which the students feel comfortable, safe and experience success. I want them to trust me and to feel assured that I will support their learning and their progress. I want them to know they are cared about and that I will be patient but will also set clear expectations. On some level, the students will associate this experience with their Jewish identity, and I want it to be positive. I hope they will look forward to coming.
IV. Thou shalt teach the whole student.
I want to know my students. I learn about their lives and interests and challenges and how they spend their time. I approach the lessons with concern and interest in the whole student, not just the part that is learning a prayer or chanting Torah. It helps me develop a relationship with them and learn how to best work with each individual. It also expands my horizons. By working with each new student with enthusiasm, respect and openness, I allow that I, too, may leave this unique relationship changed for the better.
V. Thou shalt consult with thy student.
The students and I are partners. I want to empower them to express any concerns or challenges, encourage them to tell me which strategies for learning are working and which are not, and to get input on what the next assignment will be, how much can be accomplished, etc. While I may have the final word, I want the conversation to be a dialogue.
VI. Thou shalt partner with parents.
Parents need to be in the loop about their child’s progress. Whether through e-mails or phone calls, parents should know how their child is progressing and if there are any concerns. Parents naturally like to hear good news as well. They also have important information about how their child learns. When I think more regular communication will help, I invite a parent to come in for the last few minutes of the sessions so we can all talk and hear the same words about how things are going.
VII. Thou shalt look for Shehecheyanu moments.
The path for the young person and his or her family is a first, and it is filled with firsts. There may be older siblings, but this is a first for this young person, so this journey will be unique. Helping the child and family take note of special moments along the way (e.g., the first time the child practices from the Torah scroll) is important. They are holy snapshots.
VIII. Thou shalt teach thy student to self-assess and mark progress.
It is all too easy to lose track of the progression of time and the progress that has been made during that time. We tend to be focused on the end product and not take note of all that happens on the journey. It is important to help students recognize their learning, progress and confidence-building. Having them self-assess also allows the teacher to determine how realistically the students see their own progress. I also help the students track the time left to progress because all to often they are surprised by the revelation that the big day is only four weeks away. Being reminded of this helps them with time management.
IX. Thou shalt educate about proper terminology.
There are times when the student or family will refer to the bimah as the “stage,” the congregation as the “audience” or the siddur as a “book.” I make it a point to respectfully correct these terms so that there is an understanding that the young person is leading a prayer service. This is important because our words frame our perspective.
X. Thou shalt call the week after.
While I am not able to attend the service of every student with whom I work, I make it a point to follow up with every student and family. I want to wish them “mazal tov.” I also want to hear about their experience. Thankfully it is usually very positive, but if there are concerns, it gives me the opportunity to follow up and to learn for the next time. I hope the relationship will not end after the service and that my relationship with the young person and his or her family, and theirs with me and with the synagogue community, will continue.