Nurturing our Teachers’ Strength and Vulnerability

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By Beth Burstein Fine

What does the word vulnerable mean? I recently participated in a conversation on this topic at Jewish Services in Seattle, facilitated by the inspiring Jewish educator Beth Huppin. The responses were all over the map – scary, helpless, liberating, open and much more. Yet it became clear that vulnerability falls into two categories. It is often not a choice, a product of a power and resource imbalance that creates fear, insecurity, pain, that closes doors and ends relationships. And yet it also is at the root of human connection, necessary for truly “knowing” each other. When we approach each other without judgment, with friendly curiosity, we have the potential for communicating and connecting, for creating an “I – Thou” interaction.

This dichotomy struck me as central to the struggle teachers face in the classroom. We wax poetic about the holy work of teaching the next generation, raising up the next decades’ leaders of the Jewish community. We hand our most precious resource, our children, over to teachers and hope they will work their magic and ignite Jewish meaning and connection to last lifetimes. We criticize generations of well-meaning teachers and administrators for the unsatisfactory and uninspiring education so many Jewish students experienced. Yet how do we face the lack of power, status, importance of Jewish teachers in our community ethos? How do we address the vulnerability of being a Jewish teacher, subject to low pay and little respect? And on the other hand, how might we fill our dedicated teachers’ cups so they might meet their students with full hearts and open minds, so as to truly know and nurture those children? What is our responsibility as a Jewish community that acknowledges the significance of education to support and love our teachers, meet their learning and financial needs and create the conditions for true transformative learning experiences?

Many leaders and experts have written about ways to financially support teachers. As a teacher myself, I have never excelled at financial planning. Yet I have seen gifted teachers leave the day school movement for private or public schools, simply so as to ensure their future financial security with higher salaries and more generous retirement plans. I have also seen gifted teachers worn down by high demands and low appreciation by parents and administrators. I have seen Sunday school teachers who forgo the laundry and helping with their children’s homework so as to prep their lessons, supported by their own dedication more than their knowledge of pedagogy. These teachers are vulnerable in the sense of low power and resources, which lessens their ability to be their best selves with their students.

We can reverse this vulnerability paradox. We can celebrate and appreciate our teachers, with thank yous and random gifts, with Shabbat services honoring teachers and spotlights in congregational bulletins, with robust salaries and retirement, with rich learning opportunities and paid prep time. We can provide dedicated coaches and mentors whose focus is on connecting with teachers and providing the resources they need to flourish in the classroom. We can meet our teachers where they are, and support them as they return the favor with our children.

Teachers enter our profession to love and nurture our students, to encourage their growth as learners and people and to experience the satisfaction of doing important work. It is up to our community to address their vulnerability, to support their financial needs and appreciate their significant work.

Eli Wiesel is quoted by Ariel Burger in Witness, Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom as saying, “I always teach with an open heart. Not just for moral reasons, but for pragmatic ones – a teacher’s open heart makes it possible for students to open their hearts as well.” And similarly, as we meet our teachers with love and open hearts, we allow their hearts to open to their students, and fulfill the highest calling of our beloved profession.

Beth Burstein Fine is a Jewish educator, coach and mentor in the Seattle area.