Monday, April 9, 2012

The Choosing, Looping, and Making of Teachers

My friend's daughter co-writes a blog about Jewish texts. (You can find it here.) In a recent post, Maya writes:
Our learning for this week was focused around the teaching from Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers, a collection of ethics and advice]: “aseh lecha rav, u’kneh lecha chaver, v’hevey dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf zchut. Make for yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend, and judge every person with the scales tipped in his favor.”
When we learned this text over the summer, one of its aspects that I particularly liked was the use of the verb aseh (make) rather than kneh (acquire) in reference to finding teachers. A teacher, implies the text, is not discovered but cultivated. More so, anyone can be made into a teacher, as it is a process of relationship building rather than a swift act of obtaining. Avot d’Rabbi Natan [A commentary on Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers] reads this text a bit more literally. “Melamed she’ya’aseh lo rav kavua. This teaches us that a person should have a fixed teacher.” From this teacher, a student should learn [many different Jewish texts] Torah, Mishna, midrash, halachah, and aggadah. In this way, if a teacher forgets a detail when teaching Torah, for example, this detail will still ultimately be imparted to the student when the teacher teaches Mishna.
I know very few people who have a rav kavua, a fixed teacher. In my personal experience, I have not only had different teachers for Tanach, Mishnah, and the rest of my Jewish learning, but I also have a whole other set of teachers from whom I have learned English literature, calculus, physics, and history. . . . In speaking about students like me, Avot d’Rabbi Natan asserts that “nimtza adam ha’hu…b’lo tov u’vracha. A man like this will be found…to have neither goodness nor blessing.” Great…

I thought this was very thought-provoking because, in fact, in our public schools not only do we generally take the approach that it's best to have subject-specific teachers, but also, we don't even generally tell students who will be teaching their classes. I've always imagined this was because schools were afraid to share that information because people would "vote with their feet." One of the very popular aspects of Community High School in Ann Arbor is that students generally do know who will be teaching a class you might choose to take. Yet in college, many students are persuaded to take a class in a subject they didn't think they would be interested in [be it political science, philosophy, or physics] because of the caliber of the professor.

At the elementary school level, if you (and here I am referring, generally, to parents) have any choice at all, you are generally asked to "describe the characteristics you want" rather than the teacher you want. And even if you do have some control over who you get as a teacher, you will probably not have that teacher for year after year.

One exception would be the Rudolph Steiner schools, where the idea is that you "loop" with the teacher, so the teacher moves up the grades with the student. Even in the Steiner schools, though, I don't think you get to "choose" your teachers.

As an aside, when I student taught, I taught in a middle school classroom where the students looped for seventh and eighth grade. At the beginning of the year, I was astonished by how quickly the eighth grade students--who knew the teacher from the year before--settled into a comfortable routine.

Obviously there are some down sides to looping as well--if you have a weak teacher, or a teacher who is weak in one area, that could lead to problems down the road.

There are a few aspects of the text Maya discusses that I found interesting:
1. The idea that you can, and should, choose your teacher.
2. The idea that the teacher can, and should, teach multiple subjects. [Later on in the post, Maya points out that this would allow teachers to make connections between subjects.]
3. And last, but not least, the idea that you can, and should, "make" your teacher, and not just "acquire" your teacher. That, of course, implies that the teacher is also learning from the student.

So--that is food for thought. Have you had experiences where you got to choose your teacher? Where you stuck with a teacher for several years? Where you "made" your teacher? How did it work out for you?


  1. I moved to AAPS as a seventh grader and benefited from having a homeroom teacher who also taught 2 core subjects; I was with my homeroom class for four periods of the seven period day; and the homeroom and teacher remained the same for 7th and 8th grade. Then at Huron, I was part of the three core subject IDB group for 9th grade. In both cases, there was a personal connection with the teachers and offered a 'school within a school' model, making a big place seem smaller. The Humanities program offered an inter-discipline model that made connections across subjects. I wonder if these programs are still available.

    In a previous district, our son's school looped for 1st and 2nd grade and it was wonderful. Same teacher, same kids; and less anxiety about the new year. I would think there would be benefits for the teacher too.

  2. I definitely requested specific teachers for my two kids when they were in elementary school. Believe it or not, I didn't always ask for the most popular teacher, but for the one who was likely the best fit for the kid. Our principal encouraged the requests and would generally honor them, if good reasons were given. I always thought that helped build relationships between the parents and the teachers.

    - YpsiAnon