Tag Archives: Teaching

Out of Retirement For a Moment – I need to talk

I feel like I’m young again – being moved to outrage,  feeling the urge to get up onto my soapbox. I just wish I knew a way to do something about it.

This Malky Klein story, is tragic. The first I heard of it was my sister telling me about a shiur she listened to about her story and I found the details so incredulous and ridiculous I didn’t believe it, until I saw who the speak was, R’ YY Jacobson, very reputable, and not one to exaggerate and conjecture. I just couldn’t believe these puny reasons schools found to torture this girl.

But it’s not a new story – look around, talking to a few people, everyone knows someone, or has their own horror story(ies), myself included.

The system is messed up, I don’t trust it. That’s one reason why I teach, so girls can have one class that I’ll love them regardless of their grades or what the school thinks they are. I make sure to slip in at every opportunity what an awful student I was, how I failed my way through high school, messaging the girls, High School doesn’t define you as a person, you can be amazing and successful regardless of your grades or status in high school (never mind studies revealing that it’s the popular people who end up unhappier later on in life).

But it’s disingenuous really. Because I know that if I tried, I could’ve done it. If I cared even a moment, I could’ve been the top of the class. But I didn’t. And the area that I truly struggled in – math, did bring me down, did make me question my intelligence. If I was as smart as everyone said I was, why couldn’t I remember the steps to a formula.

People are suggesting things like creating different tracks, academic and vocational. They’re well-intentioned but naïve. Not just the American culture, but particularly the Jewish culture values intelligence above all. How many results do you get from Google when you put in “Are Jews Smarter” or some iteration of the theme. Even if they make two tracks, the academic track will be the prized one, and the academically challenged (not dumb, never dumb, learning disabilities don’t make a person stupid) students will be left second best again. Yes, they’ll be in a more welcoming less pressured environment, but they’ll still know they’re second in society’s eyes (and who would ever acquiesce to being in the vocational track, who would marry them, because everyone knows you need an IQ of 180 to be a good wife, mother and person).

People suggest less stress on academics – that’s a double edged sword. While it’s more inclusive to the left end of the bell curve, it disenfranchises children who do succeed academically, you enjoy the challenge, who need the stimulation, who derive their self-worth from their accomplishments the same way other measure their worth by their lack. (which is another problem for another day)

There’s no easy fix, what’s required is a cultural shift, a revolution of thought. The thought is out there, but it’s harder to instill, feels to feel-good to be true, and to some, almost antithetical to their Jewish values when they quote (I forget who) “10,000 go in, 1 becomes a gadol.” [referring to yeshivos] And I believe the Chazaon Ish who said, “Every child should be taught as if he’s the next gadol hador.” It’s blasphemous to many to deny these sage words, so we pressure every child.

As an English teacher, maybe I’m more sensitive to language and word choice, but there’s a lot of wiggle room and interpretation in those statements, that don’t leave to the obvious conclusion most people reach – Academic Excellence.

Focusing on Growth Oriented mindset. The research on it, is amazing, but yes, it takes more patience, and rephrasing and resisting language and culture we’re so used to, but it empowers people. And particularly in the Litvish culture, we focus so much on the intellectual aspects of Yiddishkeit, the learning, the intensity, the depth, the mind. We often forget the core – the neshama, the ahavas yisroel, the chessed, the character building. It’s second – part of the extracurricular program, not the curriculum.

How many times have I sat in teacher’s meeting, were they discussed jobs and positions to offer various girls, and invariably the girls at the top of the academic ladder were always chosen. If someone else was mentioned there was a long discussion of “can she handle it – balance the workload.” And from the goals they set for their students, those questions are valid, academics, college, professional opportunities come first. But if they looked at their students as people, without considering their earning potential (never mind that intelligence is not the biggest indicator of future success) they’d realize that who cares about “handling” the workload. Will the girl do a good job, will she positively influence others, what will it mean to her self-worth.

Culturally we need to move away from the intelligence is primary attitude. It’s overrated, studies show that. Not suggesting it doesn’t make a difference in people’s lives, but it’s A LOT less significant than the value people pin to it.

I don’t know how to implement any of this. I don’t know how shift the culture. I’m not even sure how to do in in my own classroom. But I know something needs to be done. Or Malky Klein will just be another name among many.

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Posted by on August 18, 2017 in Jewish, Teaching


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60 Second to a Minute

Alarm clock

Alarm clock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m coming to appreciate how lazy I am.

Of late, there have been a few songs sporting the lyrics
“Hayom Kutzer Vehamelacha meruba, vhapoalim atzeivah v’haschar harbei, ubaal habeis dochek”

Roughly translating to,

“The day is short, there’s a lot of work, the workers are lazy, the payoff is great and the owner is concerned.”

It’s a metaphor to this world and the world to come and man is lazy. (for those of you not religiously or literary inclined)

I don’t know why these lyrics are generally matched with catchy tunes, but I find myself hearing them very often – mostly in the form of A.K.A. Pella’s new album, and I’d like to think that they thought for a moment or two about the words that they chose for the song, so I in turn should consider them – and I did – and am.

Now, while I know I have lazy tendencies, I’m not usually slapped in the face with them.

Three weeks ago I was offered a tutoring job that would go through June. I wanted the job, it was a high school girl, with issues right up my alley. My only hesitation though was the time – 9:15 to 11:15 in the morning. I usually didn’t even look groggily at my alarm clock (with no alarm set) until 9:30. How would I possibly manage to pull myself together: up, dressed, fed, ditto for kid, drop off the kid, and be someplace 15 minutes before I even ordinarily scowled properly at the coming day. And besides, a woman in her 8th month doesn’t have that much energy to spare, right?

The money was good though, and with the summer coming, and no jobs, but a baby scheduled, I couldn’t just pass it up.

“I’ll try it out.” I told my husband. “See how it works, how I feel.”

And reassuringly he said,

“Whatever you decide, it’s your decision, I’m good either way.”

So, I took the job, secure in my husband’s support and my option to back out. Two weeks later, I’m ashamed. Did I seriously wake up that late every day? Did my day really not start until I left to teach around two? Was it possible that I never stepped outside, or ran an errand until I had to leave to teach. What was I doing with my time?

Yes, breakfast with my kid was an entire morning’s affair, so was getting him dressed, and changing his diaper. It was leisurely, bordering on lazy, nah, let’s be honest, it was lazy. Now it’s astonishing what I can accomplish in 45 minutes these mornings. And come 11:15 I’ve already achieved, and I’m up and about, doing things I previously felt I had NO TIME for (like I’d constantly tell my husband). My day is profitable (literally and figuratively) at a time where I’m generally wishing I could put my kid in for an early nap. Its horrifying to discover at my age that I actually have the capability to be efficient, and even worse, I might actually be a morning person after all.

My husband too – he’s davening at an earlier minyan so he can still see me in the morning, and I drop him off at yeshiva a 45 minutes before seder even starts (about half hour before he’s usually there). It’s almost a shame the amount of prime parking spots I pass while dropping him off. And he’s learning more, writing more, accomplishing more – in a day that both of us thought had no time in it.

And now I’m left wondering, how much work have I left undone in the field? How much will I have to answer for? Yes, I may have accomplished, but I’m learning that I’m capable of a lot more. How many more hours will I discover in my day, and how soon will I unearth them?

The day is short, there’s a lot of work, and sometimes this worker is not lazy, though the owner’s still concerned.


Posted by on May 15, 2012 in Musings, Slice of Life


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The Academic versus The Ego

The entire class was huddled together on the itchy patch of commercial carpet in the kindergarten classroom. Our heads craned upward, captivated, watching our teaching tell us all about the wonderful, stupendous, and incomparable letter “C”.

“Ka,” she enunciated the hard sound. “Can anyone think a word that starts with this sound?” All around me, girls raised their hands quickly.



I didn’t have any word, or was really sure as to the letter “c”, but they got approving smiles, along with a “Good Job”, and “Excellent”.

I just wanted attention and approval. I raised my hand high, and “oohed” the loudest.

She called on me.

I was so happy. A deep breath, wild and frantic thought for a word, any word, and I said,


She said the right thing,

“Good try, Esther, but that’s a ‘p’, not a ‘c’” and she moved onto the next kid.

But her face.

Her face, of course, told me otherwise. With lips twisted in a hidden smirk, right brow slightly raised, it plainly said,

“Seriously? A ‘p’ for a ‘c’? Moron.”

The teacher’s comment on my end-of-the-year report card read.

Esther is very withdrawn in class, it has not impacted her academic performance, but it is of concern, relative to her social interactions with her peers. We will be noting it, and keeping an eye on her progress.

I know “Lo habeishan lomed” (the bashful does not learn), but for me, I think Fiero of “Wicked” had it right when he sang, “Those who don’t try, never look foolish”.


Posted by on April 10, 2012 in Memoir, Writing


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My Problem With Averages

Opening up a school has been a dream of mine for as long I can remember…well at least going back to 6th grade. Every year since I began envisioning the perfect educational model, my views on what constitutes model education evolved.

In 6th grade more vacation was my primal focus. I later started railing against uniforms. I matured a bit, and vowed to get interesting teachers, who knew their subject like their own child. I swore not to play politics or money. Most recently I’ve been advocating a school for the average child.

Of course, I could never promote my school on that platform; no one would enroll. Nobody is going to publically admit that they believe themselves to be mediocre. Actually, I don’t think anyone would consider themselves a candidate for my school, but they would surely know plenty other wonderfully average people that would make terrific students for my establishment.

Nobody truly believes that s/he are average. Every person imagines s/he have some redeeming quality or talent that puts him/herself the above the line, but somebody, or actually most people, have to be among the average. It’s just basic statistics.

As a high school teacher for the past 5 years, employed in three different (very different)schools, I have witnessed one common link between them all. They love to recycle, and I don’t mean going green. When it comes to any positions, privileges, committees, jobs, whatever term there is – the schools always referred to a small pool of students. Those students who exhibited that X factor (or their father’s checkbook) early on, earned themselves the spot of go-to girl.

These girls throughout their high school careers have ample opportunity to develop coveted skills for life: leadership, delegation, organization, brainstorming, creativity, self expression, confidence, just to name a few. They get to be on top of the totem pole, ahead of the pack, the prized few. The other girls have two options, follow them or despise them.

Yes, I know, that a success in high school does not equal success in life, but giving opportunities, safe risks, a place to try and fail without drastic consequence is a high school’s obligation. And our schools are falling very short of this goal. The Jewish High Schools rule extra curricular like a dictatorship, who’s in who’s out, who’s on top, is all by their say so, even the G.O. “elections” aren’t safe – who do you think selected the candidates. Extra curricular should be run by students and supervised by adults. Kids give each other more chances than any adult ever would.

Going back to success outside school, how many people do you know who “blossomed” after graduating high school. Suddenly they “came into themselves”. People see them as the capable talented adults that they are – and very often ALWAYS were. They were simply never given a chance to show the world who they were, because the adults in the world were too busy with the same tried and true students.

So that’s who my current school is for, the child who deserves the chance, deserves an opportunity, deserves someone to say, “I believe you can”, but won’t receive it, because they have the unfortunate lot of being “average”.

Anyone want to back this venture?


Posted by on September 6, 2011 in Teaching


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Making A Mark

red pen

Image by etcher67 via Flickr

I was a bit of a trouble maker in my younger years, and if I wasn’t making trouble, I found some already made to get caught in. In this story, I made it though.

I didn’t like Mrs. Smith, my second grade English teacher. She was smelly, had long thin white fingers and there were rumors that she wore a diaper (I may have started that rumor, I’m not sure). There are more stories involving Mrs. Smith and her supposed diapers, but that’s not this story.

In this story, I took a math test, and on a whim (yes, you can have whims when you’re 7), I wrote in big block letters in the back,


I knew it was wrong, and stupid. I showed it to a few girls lining up to hand their papers in. Their eyes got wide in horror, but then excitement, “Do it, do it!” they said. (Hey, all the fun and none of the risk, I’d probably egg someone else on too) I remember the adrenaline rush as first I hesitated to put my paper on top of the stack on her desk, then plunged the paper down, and scampered off.

By the time I walked off the school bus and my mother was asking about my day, I had totally forgotten my mischief.

A few days later, Mrs. Smith announced that she was handing back our tests. Bolting upright in my seat, I remembered my impishness. The desk started to feel very hard and uncomfortable; I didn’t want to face my stupidity. Mrs. Smith was already calling out names for girls to come collect their papers. Soon it would be mine.

“Brenda Stein”

She called my name like everyone else’s. Like I had done nothing wrong. Was this a trick? Slowly I removed myself from my desk and in opposition to what I felt like doing, which was hanging my head low, and shuffling along, I brazenly perked my head up, smiled big and sauntered to the front of the classroom. Mrs. Smith looked at me briefly, and then at my paper, and handed it to me. Her eyes didn’t say anything. I was a little disappointed. Nothing?

I don’t recall my grade, knowing my history, probably better off not remembering so I can retain some self-esteem. This was the paper I had written those cries for attention on, wasn’t it? There hadn’t been any other test; I wasn’t confusing it with another. Quickly, I flipped to the back of the test to examine my profound  commentary.

It was still written there, bold and brash as ever.


But wait, there was something. I looked closely, and then again. She added an “s” and a period. Apparently, in my haste to make a fool of myself, I left off the “s” to Mrs., and left it reading, “I hate Mr Smith.”

She just corrected me, in her red pen, marking an error I made.

An error I never made again.




Posted by on July 11, 2011 in Memoir


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Two Ways About It

GDR "village teacher" (a teacher tea...

Image via Wikipedia

When I was in sixth grade, I learned one of the greatest lessons in life – the hard way.

Our teacher had given us a writing assignment, I forget what it was exactly, but something to the effect of writing a few examples of something we had just learned. I loved writing, even back then, and I finished the assignment very quickly, I raised my hand.

“I’m done,” I called out. My teacher smiled at me,

“Why don’t you try writing a few more examples,” she suggested. I shrugged my shoulders,

“Can’t, my brain had enough for today.” My teacher looked at me eyebrows raised,

“Why don’t you try rephrasing, and saying that a little more nicely.”  She chastised gently. She had a point, I could have said it more appropriately, she was my teacher, not my friend. I drew in a breathe and rephrased,

“I don’t think I can do it.”

Suddenly my teachers warm eyes stormed over. Her mouth started to set, and she looked at me menacingly.

“What did you say?” she asked harshly. Not understanding what brought about her abrupt change I repeated myself, “I don’t think I can.”

“Such chutzpah,” she hissed. “Please leave my class.” I was in shock, and bewildered, I didn’t get what just happened, so I just sat there, unsure.

“Leave.” She repeated harshly. Well, I was a good girl who listened to my teachers, so I left.

I stood in the hallway, right outside the door pacing in small strides. I was hurt, embarrassed, confused and scared. I couldn’t make sense of what had just occurred. I decided to hide away in the bathroom, so as to avoid even more trouble if the principal, who’s office was next door to my classroom, found me.

The bathroom smelled of grey coarse toilet paper, and syrupy pink soap. secluding myself in the corner largest stall, I flipped the toilet seat cover down, sat, and went through the entire interaction in my head, again. And again. Nothing seemed clear, to make sense, it whole thing was as nonsensical as ever.

I heard the bell ring for a ten minute recess, and a changing of the teachers, and in my stall I stayed, thinking it through, just one more time.  The time was running out, and my thoughts were running faster, confusion, indignation, elucidation, the bell in my mind rang in unison with the recess bell. I finally understood, what had been a big misunderstanding.

The rest of the day went by uneventfully, and the next day in that teacher’s class, we both pretended nothing had happened the previous day. But I never forgot, and I always remember, not the story, but the lesson.


Posted by on June 27, 2011 in Memoir


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My Students Ask/Asks a Question

All I wanted to do was teacher subject-verb agreement. I prefaced it by telling them that besides for being important in writing, this lesson can be applied to their speech as well. Naturally, they’d rather argue the validity of the importance of the lesson than the actual lesson itself.

“Why do we have to speak properly, everyone speaks incorrectly anyway.”

“No, one knows the difference.”

“I can understand someone when they speak incorrectly, so who cares.”

I fought back.

“If all your friends jump off a cliff, will you jump too?”

“I know the difference.”

“You understand when you cleaning lady says ‘I clean floor’, would you like to sound like her too?”

They weren’t really swayed by my argument, (partially, or maybe mostly because they just wanted to avoid learning grammar, so disagreeing with me would delay the torture) Most girls simply couldn’t get past the concept that everyone they know speaks a certain way, so why should they be different?

The cleaning lady example, or black dialect, didn’t work, these people were too distant from them, and they couldn’t relate. My students spoke a decent English, the others had blatant disregard for the rules.

And then I told them about my sister, and her job. She’s a nurse in a office with a VERY large Chassidish clientele. Too often, she’d call me up and tell about the slaughter of the English language she witnessed that day, including gems like:

My son was fevering

He got a cold this night


I was vominating

My students roared with laughter, some of them eagerly raising their hands to tell me their funny chassidish story.

“You think it’s funny?” I asked them. They nodded vigorously. “Well, you’re probably someone else’s fool.” It was pretty cool to see how fast their expressions changed from derisive laughter, to dumbfounded and slightly embarrassed.

So I won the battle today. And they learned all about the different conditions of subject-verb agreement. Don’t think they’re not gonna pull the same shtick with their next year’s teacher.

It’s not about the answer, but the quality of the banter.


Posted by on May 12, 2011 in Teaching


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