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March 12, 2013

The Worst Teacher I Ever Had & The Most Important Lesson I Ever Learned

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I have taught children of every age since the early 1970s. In more than four decades I have learned many lessons about how people best learn, why teachers need to teach to the individual child and what is ultimately important in the teacher-student relationship. The Babylonian Talmud (Taanit 7a) teaches an important truth: “Amar Rabbi Hanina – Harbeh lamadti m’rabotai u-m’chaverai yoter m’rabotai, u-m’talmidai yoter mikulam" (“I have learned much from my teachers, more from my fellow students/friends, and from my students, most of all.”).

Though this Talmudic passage is generally true for me, nevertheless, one of the most important lessons I ever learned was when I was still a high school student. In the 11th grade I took a class from among the most popular and beloved teachers in my school. He was smart, charismatic, dynamic, devoted, emotionally accessible, and cared for his students - or most of them.

As part of his pre-college English class he required that students read a great deal of great literature and then write and give oral “book reports” on the books he assigned. During one lunch hour I was scheduled to present my report. In preparation, I had read the book as carefully as I could, underlined key passages, organized my thoughts in written notes, and brought all of that with me. I spoke for about 10 minutes during the lunch hour.

It was a custom for many students to congregate in his classroom during lunch, so many of my friends were present. At the end of my presentation he asked me an important question that to this then 17 year-old I did not understand. He asked again, and when I did not respond correctly a second time he exploded, accused me publicly of not reading the book, of relying on the book jacket for all my information, and then threw chalk and paper clips at me in a display that was, to say the least, shocking. I was humiliated, but his rant didn’t stop then. He carried it on into the next two periods accusing me in my absence and to my classmates of cheating.

I am reminded of this story often, and most especially this week when I heard that he was retiring after more than 60 years of teaching, that many students had come to honor him and express their gratitude. I too am grateful, but for very different reasons.

When I have had the urge to express frustration and/or anger at a student, I think of this teacher and credit him for reminding me of the wounds that such behavior caused me and that could cause to my own students. I once failed a student by embarrassing him, and when I did I sought him out to apologize and ask his forgiveness, which he magnanimously gave to me.

Years ago I wrote to my high school teacher to let him know of my experience that day. I had to get it off my chest and confront him directly. I am certain he received the letter, but I did not receive a response.

Rashi (11th century, France) taught that the teacher must always demonstrate patience and kindness towards the student regardless of the student’s academic, intellectual, or emotional ability, and to teach according to every student’s needs. If a student needs extra assistance, the teacher must see to it patiently that the student eventually understands.

Jewish tradition regards humiliating another human being publicly as equivalent to the shedding of blood (i.e. murder). This principle extends to all relationships and especially if there is a power differential (e.g. parent-child, teacher-student, employer/customer-employee, etc.).

Of course, criticism by a teacher to a student, an employer to employee, and within family and among friends and colleagues should be given - but, it should be done privately, carefully, patiently, and with loving concern that the receiver of such criticism understand it and have an opportunity improve and/or change behavior.

Having said all this, I also remember with great love and respect my Talmud teacher, Dr. Abraham Zygelboim (zal) at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. As a rabbinic student in my mid-20s, I had suffered a painful break-up with my then-girlfriend and I was emotionally devastated. Between classes I needed to take a few minutes for myself, so I walked outside and sat against a wall and wept.

Dr. Zygelboim approached me and kissed my forehead without ever saying a word. His sweetness will stay with me all the days of my life, just as the bitter memory of my high school teacher’s humiliation stays with me.

We are, each of us, powerful beings, and we often underestimate our capacity to touch and/or harm others. Indeed, how we treat others and speak to them defines the nature of our character more than anything else we may say, teach or do.

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