Educators Are Real People Too

by David Bryfman

Over the last few weeks, as sirens have filled our collective heads, and passion, compassion, and vitriol consumed our Facebook feeds there has been one tune that has been playing over and over in my head.

The Last War (Ha Milchama Hachrona) sung by Yehoram Gaon, whose haunting chorus is: “I promise you – my little girl, that this will be the last war.”[1]

Hamilchama Ha’achrona – Yehoram Gaon from David Bryfman on Vimeo.

We have sung this song many times before, and can only imagine the countless number of parents who over time have cited lyrics similar to these to their children in many languages in all corners of the world. Once again these lyrics have failed us.

My friends and colleagues, some here and some in Israel, have expressed almost every emotion imaginable – they include concern, grief, sorrow, determination, anger, hurt, empathy, despair, hatred, fear, frustration … the list goes on.

I also cannot help but think of all of the Jewish educators in the world, those at summer camp and in southern hemisphere classrooms today, and those who in a few short weeks will be seeing the fresh faces of children coming back to school after their summer vacations. In conversations with many of you, I can sense the anxiety of what you will say and do in relation to this summer’s events in Israel.

But this piece is not about what an Israel educator ought to do. Nor is it about what to include when educating about these conflicts or when it is developmentally appropriate to do so – both are clearly important topics for educational settings to address. This piece is about something even more fundamental – acknowledging that our educators, just like our learners, are real people.

It is true that Israel education must be about “more than just the conflict.” But many Jewish educators often neglect educating about the Arab-Israeli conflict and in some cases use this as a backdrop to avoid educating about contemporary Israel at all.

But as recent events have once again shown us, to avoid educating about the matzav[2], is to deprive our youth of authentically dealing with reality. A Jewish educator for whom Israel is integral, must include the totality of Israel in one’s “curriculum” – including her culture, people, religions, geography, language, politics – and yes, also her conflicts. To teach about Israel’s conflicts educators need time to process their knowledge, thoughts and feelings on this most vexed issue. And they must be given a space to do so that is free from judgment and filled with compassion.

I am advocating for every educational leader (or leader of educators) to consider facilitating what could be a most difficult conversation. I am asking you to consider asking your educators (and ancillary staff) to be their real selves and not simply your employees. This is the conversation when you ask people to talk about their relationship with Israel, and how the current escalated conflict is impacting them.

The discussions that I am advocating for are not ones where people are trying to convince others that they are right and others are wrong. The conversations that I am suggesting occur are ones in which ask more fundamental questions:

  • When was the first time in your life that you thought the situation in the Israel?
  • How do you keep informed about the situation in Israel in a way that advances your thinking?
  • What are some of your life experiences that have challenged the way you think and feel about the situation in Israel?
  • When you contemplate the situation in Israel today, how do you feel and what do you think?

You must establish some ground rules – including no pre-judgments, no advocating for political positions, and no disclosure beyond the bubble. Allowing for everyone who wants an opportunity to express themselves is vital, ensuring that no one monopolizes the time is critical, and to ensure that the conversation ends when it needs to end is respectful. This is not therapy because there will be no resolution. But it is a conversation of trust, authenticity and integrity.

Only once educators have had the opportunity to talk openly and safely about these questions for themselves and to their colleagues can we ask them what and how they want to teach their learners – our children.Only once educators have had the opportunity to talk openly and safely about these questions for themselves and to their colleagues can we ask them what and how they want to teach their learners – our children.

As I write this piece I am reminded of the words of Parker Palmer who writes:

“Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.” [3]

In these troubling times I urge all of us to hold a mirror to our souls, especially those among us privileged to be the educators of our people.

[1] Lyrics to this song can be found here.

[2] The matzav, literally translated as the “situation” is the term that over the last few decades has come to represent the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

[3] Palmer, Parker. The Heart of a Teacher. Change Magazine, Vol. 29, Issue #6, pp. 14-21, Nov/Dec 1997.

Dr. David Bryfman is the Chief Innovation Officer of The Jewish Education Project and an educational consultant for the iCenter.

cross-posted on the iCenter’s Voices From the Field