The Ten Commandments of Teaching
By Joshua Ladon
I left the world of adolescent education and the classroom in June, and spent my summer reflecting on what I had learned from teaching and what it means to teach effectively. Because I taught Jewish Thought, I beg your indulgence to present the Ten Commandments for Teaching:
Have a Vision
The Ten Commandments begin with a clear statement of purpose that locates value outside of the individual, “I am the Lord your God.” Educators must subscribe to a vision that transcends their personal affinity for specific content. Math has practical applications, but the ability to evaluate quantitative data, think in organized ways, and learn to solve complex problems also nourishes curiosity. History is important for citizenship, but knowing that society has evolved develops the student’s eye toward understanding systems of justice and injustice.
The methods of revelation are as important as the content
My students’ ability to understand content and express that understanding was inherently connected to their ability to access it: to read, take notes, summarize, paraphrase, and write. My role as a teacher was as much about teaching someone how to read, as it was teaching the material I was charged with teaching.
This is a “life–or–death” profession
The importance that education plays in constructing civil society and the privilege simply to study is absent from the mouths of educators in many American schools. Teachers cannot simply see themselves as teaching math, science, or literature, but as engaged in the process of building a society that respects human dignity. The assumption of a liberal education is that through learning we build our capacity to recognize different ways to think and act, ultimately, to recognize the other.
Be honest about yourself as a learner and a teacher
While I love studying and gaining knowledge, it has not always come easily to me. I want my students to know this, so they will hear me when I push them, will ask me for help, and will also trust me when I try something new. My ability to be honest about myself as a teacher comes from doing the work of thinking about who I am as a teacher and a student. It also has produced the best feedback I have ever received, as when a brilliant, talented, graduating senior said, “It is inspiring to me to see someone who also has ADHD … yet continues to put himself in academic environments. It reminds me that my love of learning can overpower my learning disability.” Transparency creates trust and comfort, further opening students to the possibility of learning.
Break the Tablets
The lesson from the story of Moses coming down from Sinai and smashing the Ten Commandments is that nothing in our realm is 100% sacred, and just because I have taught it one way every other time, does not mean I need to do that way today. This applies to students as well. How often did I catch the same people goofing off in class? Was that because they were the only ones, or was it because I became trained at checking them first? The challenge of teaching is to gather as much information as one can about each student, so you can teach to each of them without letting that define who they are. We need to let our students walk in the door and allow them to surprise us anew each and every day.
Empower, introduce, steward, shuttle, expand, unlock. Open students’ minds to previously unknown worlds, open their hearts to new feelings, open their eyes to new realities. Every new equation, poem, and vocabulary word is a new way to interact with others. The challenge is to find the door each student needs to walk through.
Each student is unique and needs to grow in their own way. We are not just making the next great physicist, diplomat, rabbi, or violinist; we are making the next great generation of people. Our teaching needs to be imbued with generosity, morality, kindness, and purpose.
Frontload and Discover
Some students appreciate figuring out puzzles; others find them impenetrable. It creates anxiety to be told to go forward when you are not sure if you are headed in the correct direction. As a result, I began to frontload information. I guided my students in intentional ways toward discovery through explicit instructions, sharing enduring understandings, and even telling them what I wanted them to figure out. I was able to teach them the skills necessary to have “ah ha” moments, all the while engendering a sense of comfort in a learning process filled with missteps.
Don’t be afraid to apologize
It is key to demonstrate your humanity, your willingness to make mistakes, to listen to your students’ concerns, and to show your desire to become a better teacher. The power dynamic in a classroom between faculty and students is dramatic. Even in the most progressive, empowering, and warm environments, students regularly talk about how teachers “don’t like them” or are “out to get them.” This paradigm is fortified by the fact that teaching is a dynamic act in which one is keeping order, entertaining, asking questions, and challenging assumptions.
Even if everyone is behaving, the simple act of pushing back on a student’s ideas can appear confrontational. In response, I regularly took to apologizing to students, sometimes in public, sometimes in private. That act of apology goes a long way to engender good will and to support your student’s learning.
Don’t be a friend, be a mentor
Being a mentor means understanding one’s role in students’ lives, balancing the desire to be liked with the need to educate them. Students need boundaries, affection, role models, confidantes, and ultimately to feel safe. Being a mentor means taking the individuality of that student seriously and having the desire to do what is best for the student, even at the cost of one’s relationship with that student.
Rabbi Joshua Ladon is the San Francisco Bay Area manager for the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He previously served as the Dean of Student Life and Jewish Life at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.