#BlogElul – Learn
What lessons did I learn this year? I learned a bit of language and a bit of math. I learned a bit about Hamilton and a bit about Canada. On the spiritual level, the interesting one in Elul, however, I guess I learned things I already knew. I learned that I am a perfectionist who takes too long to do the simplest things. I learned that whatever sense I was using, my ability to perceive the outside world was not just somewhat limited, but more limited than that of others, that I am clumsy and compulsive, and that I am a bit needy and into complaining. These traits, which I’ve been working on since I was a kid are still there.
I learned that I can be a good teacher – it’s tricky, but I can be if I try. I am also beautiful, funny, and smart. I’m a good mom – I build decent family relationships. I learned that I’m into writing and that my writing is occasionally decent and that I’m into chatting with others so long as they do most of the chatting and that I enjoy board games and prayer services, singing and fancy meals. More or less, I knew all of that.
How can I learn something new? How can I understand myself on a deeper level? Maybe this is it – maybe learning that I am – I can be and I am – a good teacher, for instance, takes me a lifetime. Maybe I need to learn these lessons from a whole lot of different angles, in a ton of different circumstances to gauge the depth of my knowledge and to increase it. I can think of each aspect of myself and my learning as a polished gem. Yes, the learning is there no matter what, but as I go through the years, I polish it so that it shines more brightly.
I am starting to study Torah, a bit, again. It’s not easy and I don’t know enough of it. It says “veTalmud Torah keneged kulam” when listing the good traits (like honouring parents and visiting ill people) that we should have.
Ve – and the study. Have you noticed how the bible always starts everything with an “and” – every verse connected to every other, every saying/action of God connected to every other, every aspect of the universe intertwined into one gigantic web of being and Being.
Talmud – study; learning; commenting; asking why “lamah”; investigating; the compendium of people who did that for a living was at one point collected into books called the Talmud. Schools are sometimes called Talmud Torah – the Learning of Torah place. Learning is big.
Torah – the knowledge God gave Moses, and through Moses, us; the writings of inspired people; the beginning and end of information; the way things work; Torah that’s by hand and Torah that’s in the mouth – learning is physical; visceral. Some people translate Torah as Jewish Bible/old testament, and some as knowledge/wisdom and the fact that both are true is why we study it.
KeNeged – is against; is compared to; is equivalent to. Kulam – them all. How can study be equivalent to all those other things – prayer, comfort, service, respect, commitment? What does it mean to say it’s against/compared to them all? Surely, doing is more important than learning? Heck, coming to a house of learning early is in the list! If I devote myself to study to the exclusion of all other things then study really is against them all! So what makes it such a big deal? Is it the inspiration to do more that Torah should bring? Is it that polishing of my learning, that deeper understanding of myself?
If it is, and if I can use that learning to unblock some stuck places in my life that I can do more service and so on, then it would make perfect sense for Torah to equivalent to them all because it leads to them all. This year, I will see learning as a polishing cloth that I use to shine up the gems in my personality and smooth away the imperfections – not so that I may sit there like a piece of jewelry, but that I may go out there and become more useful and more beautiful in the world.
BlogElul – Trust
I consider teaching to be a pretty important trust. It’s my gift and it’s what I’m meant to be doing. Mostly, I believe that the kids come first and regularly sacrifice little things like sleep, fun activities and oh, say, breathing to it. I encourage my students to contact me any time they need, and I give them all the extra help I can.
It’s an approach that not everyone will take, and I’m not exactly advocating it as a healthy one (I keep thinking I’ll catch up one of these days.) There are many teachers who build excellent rapport and maintain a fun (possibly even more fun than mine – I go for as much learning as possible and believe testing accomplishes that more than fun sometimes) classroom, and yet keep very firm limits and boundaries around their teaching. That is an excellent way to teach.
My approach is one that I want to base on trust. I want to trust my students to do their very best with their abilities, 100% of the time. I want my students to trust me to provide them with the best learning possible, 100% of the time. That’s what I need that relationship to be – one of trust, in each other, in our abilities and in the subject we are learning. It may not be the right approach but it is what I have.
Being human, I don’t accomplish this very often. I forget to do things, I get overwhelmed, I fall asleep – sometimes, I find I’m laughing at myself for how behind I am. This month, I’ve done something I had never ever done before. I said no to a student who was struggling with knowledge – in fact, I said no to her parents. The child has a disability that I am not the best qualified person to treat, and I said so. It was hard. I hate having limitations. It was nevertheless completely necessary if I was to maintain my trust. I hope to be able to keep that up.
When I accept those limitations on my ability, own up to them and speak them, that’s essential. When I push myself past those limitations in some areas and achieve more than I ever thought possible, that’s pretty exciting too.
It’s true for my students too. It’s amazing how much kids learn when you trust them to, you know. Mostly, we project the most horrid stupidity onto children. When I tell my students, “you are good at this; I believe completely in your ability to finish this question”, they are shocked! That shouldn’t be the case. The material I’m teaching is relatively simple, interesting in and of itself, helps one see the world in a new way and lets people go back to all those fun puzzle solving days in childhood. Yay! Why wouldn’t the average intelligent young human being be able to do that?
Most of the students I discover can. Some need more time and effort to be able to do so – they have limitations they need to accept. So, we talk about being proud of that 60 or 70%, we say “you need extra time and support – I give extra time and support!” Most students however, can put forth that effort and totally succeed in an area that once had baffled them – I love that! It helps confirm for me that teaching is a trust, one that I have to work at but also, one that I can get strength from.
We interrupt this blog post for a happy announcement: My kid is learning to read! (My youngest – my older kids are learning fun things too.) It’s amazing. Just seeing that expression when a kid realizes that the letters in a word can be put together into words and the words can be put together into a story and stories are fun and there’s so much that she can do now that she couldn’t before and…it’s magic.
Mostly, the world has a lot of ordinary stuff in it – tasks to do and things to clean, people to take care of and children to teach and I do them and then there’s more of them and life goes on. Magic is rare. It wakes up a part of me that mostly, stays a sleep. It could be a kid that actually gets something I’ve been nattering about for days. Maybe I’m enjoying a beautiful summer day. Possibly, I’ve mastered something new, or completed something difficult. These are all possibilities for magic moments.
The ones the kids bring – well, they’re my favourite. All the crustiness of the everyday melts away, to be filled with tenderness, with hope, with excitement and wonder. Kids see more magic, they know it better and they are the ones who make it happen. Especially when they learn. That’s the reason I teach, you know – to allow the magic that is learning to happen. You can see it. Their faces glow, they speak faster, the excitement is huge, and there’s no stopping a kid who’s in that learning groove, gaining ideas one by one. Something complicated becomes simple, something that held no meaning becomes clear, something impossible now seems not only doable but fun.
When they do, my body responds – I get hugely excited, I glow, I speak faster. It’s happy making and I know that magic just happened.
It doesn’t happen all that frequently. There’s a lot of head pounding, explaining things again and again, looking at it from other perspectives. There’s the pain of failure, and frustration and the desire to give up. (This is a bad one. It’s hard to fight the “I can’t, I won’t and I don’t wanna” goblins. I hate that more than any actual difficulty. I fight it with all that I have – prizes and treats, stickers and smiles, force and determination. I say, whisper, scream and push “you can, you will, and someday, you’re going to wanna”. ) The pace is slower than molasses in January. Mostly, my teaching is a lot of hope balled up together with positive thoughts and wishes. I think up of new and creative ways to present concepts. I give examples and practice opportunities. I ask questions, I show things, I explain, and I hope like crazy they get it. If they don’t, I cope with that and smile a bit and do it again, hoping that this time…
And then they do. They understand a thing and all of a sudden, my hopes get fulfilled, the lightbulbs go off, magic happens. I love that.
I am a terrible student. I don’t listen very well, having a lot of my own ideas and things to think about. I am quick to judge what others tell me and I am slow to accept new ideas or different thoughts. I’m a bit careless and a bit lazy – I’ve never been big on notes or homework. I have always been a bit hard on teachers I have had over the years. Some that have had a choice about it have even asked me not to come back – they had put in a lot of work teaching me and it was going nowhere and I didn’t seem very grateful about it either.
God, therefore, who has a wicked sense of humour, made me a teacher. Then, God gave me some terrible students. I admit to having noticed my attitudes and approaches to learning, and been amused at how ugly and irritating they are in another person. I appreciate this particular joke, even if it is at my expense because it is truly beautifully executed. When we don’t learn from elders – be they parents, teachers, or coaches – God smiles a little and sends us young people in the form of children, students and anyone else we’re supporting to learn from.
It’s like the creation story, which I am studying right now, and which we’re getting closer to in the Jewish year. (I’m telling it with God in the feminine but works fine with either gender – I’ve heard it both ways. I just happen to really dislike They as a singular pronoun – it reads funny to me.) God has some beautiful children, and sends them to play in the garden. She tells them lots of ways they can play and have fun, and then he says, ‘Don’t’. ‘Don’t what?’ asks Adam. ‘Don’t touch the fruit on that tree.’ Says God. ‘What tree? Hey, Eve, look we have a tree we can’t touch!’ ‘Cool!’ ‘Just don’t touch it!’ says God, wondering whether She shouldn’t have stopped Creation with the sea monsters. She comes back a few hours later to see Her kids enjoying a lovely fruit snack. ‘Didn’t I tell you not to touch that tree?’ ‘What tree?’ ‘I didn’t do it!’ ‘You did too’ ‘Eve made me!’ ‘I did not!’ ‘You did too!’ ‘Did not’ ‘Did too!’ So, God, with a growing headache, gave them a time out and pronounced the curse that has continued to echo down through the generations, ‘may your children be just like you!’
My children are just like me, some of them. Of course, some of them are completely different. They’re more like my teachers or parents, more like my mentors. I can learn from them all. It’s kind of cool, because even those kids that share my traits – even though some of them may be described by others as terrible students – they’re pretty darned wonderful. They’ve helped me realize all the ways in which I’m a wonderful student too. I care about the subject I’m learning and I like to go deeper into the questions and really understand the principles that make them work, not just learn the steps and formulas. I like most of my teachers and can be kind to them, talking to them like human beings and showing caring. I am patient and will slow down. I ask for help when I’m struggling without too much embarrassment, and (after some practice with gratitude) appreciate that help when it’s given. I am persistent – I won’t give up when I’m struggling, I’ll keep trying.
And God is happy to teach – maybe through new lessons, maybe through my kids, there will be a lesson. Elul gives me another chance to be a good student. I can learn from God’s little life lesson and be a better student. I can be slightly less lazy and slightly less angry, slightly less judgemental and slightly more grateful, slightly less self-focused and slightly more accepting. I can maximize my positive traits, noting the ones I appreciate in my students. I can laugh at myself (it always comes to that, somehow) and realize that as usual, God’s curse is a blessing. I am glad my children are just like me. I hope that I can, indeed, learn from them and continue to grow into a better student and as such, a better person.
Yesterday, I wrote about khutzpa – and as I was in a house with no internet, I couldn’t send it out, so you are getting two posts at once (how Shabbat appropriate is this? Remind me to do more Shabbat resting this year) and I figured I may as well stick with the topic. Why? Because khutzpa – that supreme self-confidence that powers our crazy but beautiful actions – khutzpa is necessary.
Last year was a hard year for me as a teacher. I wasn’t sure if I was doing a good job, if I was reaching my students. There was rarely the gratification of an explanation leading to sudden bursts of understanding and comfort with a topic that had seemed overwhelming. The feedback from students was limited and some of it, pretty negative. So, I lost my confidence in my ability to be that teacher – the inspirational one that one remembers 30 years later, the one that changes the direction of your life with his wisdom and the way he has of saying things, the one that inspires your writing. (Thank you, again, Mr. Waldman – you remain the best of the best.) I still had the need to teach, the need to give – but without the confidence that it was good.
And oddly, it became less good. I could teach less when I didn’t believe in myself. I found myself being more impatient with my students, being more confusing in my explanations, being more random in my preparation. I started doubting my choices of vocation, of life. I thought – well, I have lost my confidence and there is nothing I can do about this and I am stuck with this ugliness. Only, I am not.
Today, I know I am a terrific teacher. Yes, I can improve. Yes, I have much to learn. However, I am a great teacher. Furthermore, I am great at all sorts of things that up to now I thought I wasn’t very good at. Organization, cleaning, style, meeting people, dancing and singing – these are now things I am good at. I am not perfect, and I am not as good as many people, and there is room for growth, yes. However, I am done being weak in all sorts of areas. It isn’t working for me. As of today, I have no areas of weakness. I have decided so and thus it will be so. I have done so, simply by an act of will.
I didn’t believe the ‘act of will’ thing would work – but oddly, it does. When I say it, firmly, definitely, clearly – to as many people and as many times as possible – I get that khutzpa, and with that khutzpa, I can write. I can teach and work and learn and grow. I need khutzpa to function. I refuse to live in the land of humiliation for even one more minute. I am *good* at what I do. So now, when I apply to job after job after job (which I do), I treat each application as an opportunity – a chance to say one more time that I am terrific. The more I say it, the more I believe it – I *am* terrific. If the world gives me different feedback, I will use it solely as a tool to improve and become more terrific, not as information about by lack of talent or worth in an area.
This last week of job search and writing has been transformative for me. I found my khutzpa again. You, who were hoping for a more humble me – sorry. It’s just not happening. I rock. I’m good at what I do and I’m going to keep on doing it.