Seth Rudetsky – Judy Davis – Mrs. Green – Yoni Shultz.
If any of those names ring a bell with you, you’re either an unapologetic listener to the Broadway channel on Sirius XM, an in-the-weeds fan of pop music – or you’ve been doing some digging into my personal background.
Seth Rudetsky hosts a program on the Broadway channel, and as a veteran pianist and music director, he dishes out plenty of anecdotes between playing famous and obscure musical tracks. More than a 21st century version of a radio DJ, Rudetsky also has a series of YouTube videos in which he “deconstructs” songs – stopping/starting the tape as he explains in detail the choice of note and key and phrasing behind the lyrics and music. To hear his description of a piece of music you’ve heard dozens of times before is to understand it for the first time. He’s hilarious – and he’s brilliant.
Judy Davis is a legend in the pop musical world. She’s been a vocal coach for Sinatra and continues to work with Barbara Streisand, among others. I’m not looking up how many awards Streisand has received, but to her credit, she continues to work with someone who coaches her on breathing and enunciating. Like the homerun champ who bats close to 400 and still works with his batting coach, she knows that no one is past the point of needing a teacher – and that when an experienced pro works with a coach, it’s a show of strength, not weakness.
Mrs. Green (I’m so sorry but in those days I never knew her first name) was my Eleventh Grade American History teacher, and she was a dynamo of energy, knowledge, metaphor and allusion. The woman knew how to teach – meaning, she knew how to motivate, stimulate, challenge and not let anyone slip below her/his very best work. I have a Master’s degree in (and a lifelong love of) Middle East History and U.S. Foreign Policy that should have her name stamped in a small but legible font onto the diploma. Thanks, Mrs. Green.
And Yoni. Yoni was the second Camp Director under whom – with whom – I worked as a madrich (“counselor” – but the word means so much more than that). He was trained in classical non-formal youth movement education, and he was an astoundingly powerful role model. I can trace back much of my thinking, about the blend of formal and non-formal education and about the concept of dugma ishit (personal example), back to his Socratic questions and soft, low-key, penetrating demeanor.
Teachers – every one of them, though only one plied her craft in a conventional classroom. Teaching comes in many forms; our first and always-most-important teachers are our parents, and our lives are forever impacted by their words and actions. After them – and if we’re truly fortunate, after the lessons we’ve learned from our grandparents – there comes a seemingly never-ending lineup of teachers, many of them never wearing that particular label. The swimming coach, the soccer coach, the vocal coach – teachers, every one of them. The youth group leader, the supervisor at work, our rabbi. Even those no longer here – our Sages (chazal) who bequeathed us their commentaries’ insights, the authors of the books that speak to us from hundreds of years ago – they are all our teachers.
As we build The Oasis School, we are looking for teachers who proudly wear that title – who certainly have a body of knowledge, but who go much further that. With all the technological progress we’ve made over the last decades – from chalk board to white board to smart board and beyond – the magic of learning still resides in the relationship between learner and the facilitator of that learning (aka, the teacher). In my previous school, in which I was privileged to be the Head of School for seventeen years, I trotted out this opening at our Parents Nights: “At our school, our teachers don’t teach algebra; they don’t teach chemistry – and they don’t even teach Tanach or Hebrew. [Insert dramatic pause.] They teach… students.”
Admittedly, I couldn’t use the same soliloquy too often – but you get the point. Of course the subject matter is essential, and every excellent school will have teachers who know their discipline. But that is frankly the floor, not the ceiling. The teachers we seek will of course know their chosen field – and at the same time, they’ll be invested in the much broader mission and vision of the school. They’ll explain the ‘how’ of the quadratic equation – and will be able to talk to their students about why it’s important. They will be knowledgeable about the American Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence of Israel – and will be able to discuss how both documents speak to our students’ lives today, in the Twenty-first Century.
The brilliance of Pirke Avot (the “Chapters of the Fathers” – often called the Ethics of our Fathers) was codified about 1,800 years ago. One of its lessons was attributed to Joshua ben Perahiah: עשה לך רב – make for yourself (some say, “acquire” for yourself) a teacher. Nearly two millennia ago, they knew, as we know today, that we all – at all stages of our lives – need our teachers. Not just to pour information into our waiting, open minds – today, any semi-decent phone has more bits and pieces of information than we need. Rather, our teachers are there to help our students to critically analyze all that information; to appreciate it’s importance in their lives; to be able to determine their role in the world.
Here’s to teachers – no matter what they’re called.
שבת שלום – Shabbat Shalom,