By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
When I was a principal, I would often walk through the halls of my school during class. When I did, I would glance in the classrooms and, even with the doors closed and in the relative silence of the hallway, I would be able to identify what I considered a “successful” classroom.
It is, of course, easy to identify an “unsuccessful” classroom – when students are not paying attention; when they are disruptive; when the teacher sits behind the desk and shows no enthusiasm for his material or the delivery of it. These are “red flags” that cry out, unsuccessful. But successful? For me, when I saw students engaged in the instruction and, most importantly, when I saw them actively participating then I knew there was successful teaching and learning going on. That is, if I could see evidence of students learning independently then I knew I was witnessing a successful classroom. Without exception, when I saw a classroom with students participating, I saw a teacher with a smile on his face.
That smile told me that my teacher found joy not just in the material he was teaching – after all, in Jewish day schools and yeshivas is not all our material valuable and worthy of our joyous review and teaching? – but, more importantly, the joy of his students’ learning!
Thinking back on that time, I think about the advice a colleague shared with his teachers. He told them, “Make your classroom like your home and treat your students as your guests.” And another, who wisely noted that teaching, is really just another form of “parenting.”
We intuitively understand the close connection between parenting and teaching. After all, we refer to our colleges as our alma maters – our “nurturing mothers.”
Teaching and parenting. Two sides of the same coin. In both, it is essential that we are “successful.” The question is, What does that mean?
When I was in the classroom, I cherished the moments when I reviewed text and ideas with my students but my greatest joy was when they were able to take what I shared with them and discover something new and unique.
I reveled in their independence. It seems odd to say that as a teacher, when for so many the role of teacher is to “pass along” knowledge. But learning is not and should not be passive. Students are not mere vessels to be filled with information.
There is much a student or child can do simply by “following instruction.” Swimming is not one of them! To swim is to be independent, is to have the judgment and intelligence to read changing variables and tides, to be able manage shallow shoals and dangerous depths. That is what a teacher – and a parent – must prepare a student and child to do.
Not long ago, a mother and father wrote to a rebbi, saying they had waited for the day when their son, who had always been a caring and good student, “would pick up a Gemarah on his own on a Shabbos afternoon.” That day finally arrived just as their son was getting ready to graduate 12th grade.
That school succeeded! Those parents succeeded!
The child could swim!
* * *
As the child, so too the Children of Israel.
There were two great songs recorded in the Torah, the more famous being Az Yashir. “Then sang Moshe and B’nai Yisrael this shirah…”, praising the splitting of the yam suf and allowing the Children of Israel to be free at last from their bondage in Mitzrayim. The other, less well known, is tucked away near the end of Chukas, a short song of gratitude for the uninterrupted supply of water (the well!) throughout the forty years sojourn in the desert. “Then Israel sang this song; ‘Come up, O well, announce it! Well that the princes dug, that the nobles of the people excavated, through a lawgiver, with their staff. A gift from the Wilderness.” The song then traces the path of the well /water that followed the nation, no matter how high the elevation or difficult the terrain. The gift went from the valley to the heights. And from the heights to the valley in the field of Moab, at the top of the peak, overlooking the surface of the wilderness.
The irony of childhood is that it is only after it is over, when we are adults and independent, do we realize that we were in a period of innocence, that we could not have become what we’ve become without the guidance and wisdom of our parents.
So too, as the Children of Israel sang, they finally understood that they could never have made it without God’s constant and consistent be’er –well – supply of water, but make it they did. They are about to enter the Land, and are leaving God a note of thanks, very much like the bride tucking a thank you note for her parents before leaving for the Chupah, or the student for his rebbi before graduation. They are saying “thank you” knowing that they are able to move forward independently because they had been nurtured and loved – and prepared and expected to be independent!
The Promised Land was a long, hard forty years away. The ‘Song of the Well’ was celebrated at the end of that long journey. Throughout that journey, Moshe taught many important lessons, lessons that B’nai Yisrael fortunately absorbed.
When they first escaped Mitzrayim, the people were burdened with a slave mentality; they were like little children who had to be taught everything, even how to say “thank you” for their deliverance. Thus, az yashir Moshe and B’nai Yisrael. But then, forty years hence, after hardships and joys, after the lessons of Sinai, including more than half of Torah mitzvoth bein adam l’chaveiro, with countless lessons of gratitude and appreciation conveyed everywhere in the Torah it was “graduation” time, it was time to step forward as a proud, independent nation. It was time for Moshe, as a parent and teacher would, to sit back confident and gratified that the children will do the right thing, they will say “thank you” to God.
They had learned to learn on their own.
Was it hard for Moshe to stay silent and not sing with them? Of course. It was hard for him and for them. It is always “easier” for parents to “do for” their children; it is always easier for the teacher to tell the student what he or she needs to know. But how much more joyous, how much more satisfying, how much more meaningful to have brought children and students to the place where they can “do it themselves”?
Moshe, the archetypal parent and teacher, has shown how to raise children and teach students. He is shepping the nachas!
Moshe is not simply hearing a repetition of the song he led B’nei Yisrael in singing. He is hearing a new song. And that is the greatest joy of the parent and the teacher, to hear his or her child or student sing a “new song”, a song that could never have been sung without their love, guidance and faith – faith in the child to one day walk forward as an individual.