Transitions in the Life of an Educator

  • by: Zvi Grumet
Rabbi Grumet, Associate Editor of Ten Da’at, is Associate principal of the Torah Academy of Bergen County
Ten Da’at, A Journal of Jewish Education, Vol. X:1, Adar 5757, Spring 1997

I am often haunted by two conversations dating back to my first year as a teacher. The first transpired late one night in the beit midrash while a number of semikha students were enthusiastically discussing “going into hinukh.” When asked why they wanted to pursue this career, they responded that they wanted to continue their involvement in Torah study. “How absurd,” I said, “If you want to have time to continue learning you should become computer programmers, leave work at five, and have the evening to learn.” The job of a mehanekh has no limits; between preparing materials and making papers, long days and longer nights, finding time to continue in one’s own learning is a major challenge.
The second conversation took place at a conference in which a veteran educator working for a central educational agency addressed a group of first year teachers. While all of us were highly motivated and idealistic, the financial impracticality of being teachers was all too real. One young teacher asked how it could be possible to support a family on an educator’s salary, to which the veteran responded, “Well, if you are really good then you can become administrator, which does pay well.” The absurdity of the remark is no less poignant today than it was 13 years ago. At least three issues need to be highlighted. First, did this veteran educator mean to imply that teachers could not expect to make a living wage? Second, did this mean that for the next ten years we would all be in competition with each other to see who would make it to the point at which he could rise to a position in which he could make ends meet? Third, does this mean that the best teachers are destined to be forced out of the classroom by financial considerations?
Having recently made a (partial) transition from the classroom to the administrative suite, I find myself once again plagued by questions of priorities and goals inherent in the nature of any major change. I choose to share these thoughts with the readers, as I believe they are, or should be relevant to them. I also choose not to share answers to these questions, for the answers are as individual as the reader. Perhaps the value in these ruminations is to validate the questions other may be asking of themselves, and to acknowledge that others have asked these same questions and somehow come to peace with the answers they discovered, whether by design or by default.

I. From Beit Midrash to Beit Sefer

The beit midrash can be incredibly demanding, filled with long hours of learning, intellectual and religious challenges, and struggles with theological conundrums, spiritual quests and personal growth. The elusive goal of achieving pure idealism and simple faith married to intellectual integrity always seems to be one step beyond reach. Despite all that, and possibly because of it, the beit midrash is idyllic. Most of one’s expenses are covered by someone else, those studying in the beit midrash are there because they want to be, and the intellectual and spiritual quests exist primarily in the ivory tower of learning, unsullied by the practicalities of the “real” world.
Upon entering the classroom, the world of the bahur yeshiva changes instantly. Questions of theodicy and tzadik vera’ lo are replaced by questions of, “is this going to be on the test?” and , “can we have an extended recess?” A late night hevruta to learn Rambam’s Shemonah Perakim is cancelled so that homework assignments can be marked and tests prepared. Even the language changes; the untranslatable phrases and catchwords we take for granted in the beit midrash must now be translated for the students into a language they can understand. Rav Hayyim Brisker and the Kezot haHoshen are packed away for vocabulary sheets and transliterated texts.
Teaching can be physically and emotionally exhausting. A teacher must be a talmid hakham and assume the roles of surrogate parent, guidance counselor, confidante, classroom manager, psychologist, drama coordinator, actor, educational specialist, curriculum designer, dynamic motivator and Superman. By the time the teacher comes home at night he is lucky if he has time to finish his preparation for the next day.
What many fail to recognize (or simply forget), is that the leap from the beit midrash to the classroom involves a complete restructuring of one’s goals and aspirations. In the beit midrash, people are judged by their hatmada, breadth of their bekiut and depth of their iyyun. The role models set are the rashei yeshiva, and the talmidim train to emulate those models. In a day school classroom, on the other hand, those models and aspirations are, for the most part, irrelevant. A successful teacher is not necessarily the one with the most knowledge (although breadth and depth certainly help) and a whole new set of goals must be acquired to supplant or supplement the old ones.
The realization that a transformation must occur comes (hopefully) almost instantly, though making that transformation a reality is a long and difficult – and sometimes frightening – process. In rearranging one’s priorities to accommodate the new reality there comes the fear of losing or diluting the critical elements of the value system acquired at great personal expense through hours of endless debates, late night discussions, and profound introspection. After years of being enfolded in an environment supportive of spiritual struggle, dreaming for the day that he could lead others on a similar spiritual quest, the newly ordained rabbi finds himself occupied with chalk fights, class clowns, and children with family situations more complicated than fiction.
Slowly but surely the doubts begin to creep in. Is all the effort worth it? “Would I have been better off staying in the beit midrash to learn, or seeking a lucrative position in business, as many of my friends have? If I must sacrifice my own personal growth in Torah, would I not have been better served finding a job that allows me to earn a decent wage, come home at a reasonable hour, and have time to learn at night – more than I manage to squeeze for myself now? Why should I sacrifice my own learning and growth in Torah particularly when the financial rewards can’t justify it?”
Of course, the pat answers are right at his fingertips: “I’m devoting my life to Am Yisrael,” but after a few particularly frustrating days or halfway through a year with a particularly difficult classes, the pat answers begin to ring hollow. “Does the Jewish People really need me? Am I making a significant contribution to Am Yisrael, or am I just another glorified baby-sitter? Is the impact that I am having on my students significant, or just another phase through which they will pass?”
Even without the frustrations it is easy to be plagued by self doubt, after all, how does an individual know where to concentrate his efforts? Should it be in kiruv rehokim or dealing with those already in the religious mainstream? Should he focus on younger children, adolescent or adult education? Would he serve a more important function spending additional time learning or counseling individual students? Should he specialize in Tanakh or Talmud or integrate a variety of disciplines? Would he be sacrificing his idealism if he chose to stay in a major metropolitan area or make aliyah, rather than traveling to some small town in need?
Within the schools themselves there are issues completely new to the starting rebbe. How does he maintain close, intimate relationships with his students while maintaining the distance a rebbe must keep? Should he be jealous of the colleague who was given a higher level shiur or trusted to handle the “difficult” cases?
In some cases, the young rebbe‘s Torah knowledge will exceed that of his educational superiors, although the administrator has a keener sense of education and classroom management. Is the young rebbe prepared to accept, or ask for educational advice from someone he considers his “lesser” colleague? Even more frightening, the young educator may be afraid that twenty years down the line he will become just like the veteran educator, skilled in classroom practice but forgetful of the beit midrash.
Just as frightening is the nature of the individual’s relationship with Torah. What happens to the idealistic yeshiva student when he is paid to teach Torah: Does he become a mercenary of Torah? Everyone involved in Torah education deserves to be paid, and paid well. The danger in that is, ironically – for those who value Torah study so much that they devote their lives to it – that it runs the risk of becoming a business commodity. The educator must find ways to protect himself from the dilution of his own values while preserving his right to a respectable wage.
Finally, as with all figures in public life, where does one’s public life as an educator end and the private life begin? How, and where, does one draw boundaries around the chosen calling and mission of educating Jews, and leading one’s own life? In the words of Yaakov Avinu, after years of service to Uncle Laban: matai e’eseh gam anokhi leveiti?

II. From the Classroom to the Boardroom

The purpose here is not to describe the scope of the job of a school administrator, nor to get involved in the range and complexity of the issues an administrator must balance, for that would take too many pages. Rather, my goal is to highlight some of the personal challenges one faces in moving into an administrative position. From the outset I should point out that being an effective, or even an outstanding classroom educator has little bearing on the ability to assume an administrative position. Similarly, no amount of formal education or training can possibly prepare someone to become a school administrator. The entire constellation of individuals, personalities, issues and modes of functioning are different, and therein lies, perhaps, the most significant challenge to the new administrator.
As a veteran teacher in a school your position within the school culture is clearly defined. Fellow teachers respect your experience, wisdom and expertise, viewing you as a colleague with an inside track. Students value your instruction, sage advice, and trust your judgement, seeing you as role model, confidante and potential advocate. The administration values your insights and comments, knowing that your advice is well-intentioned and that you have your finger on the pulse of the students and faculty. When you disagree with the official policy of the school, you can offer a diplomatic “no comment” when asked, without compromising either your personal integrity or your loyalty to the school.
Following your promotion to an administrative position, however, those luxuries begin to vanish. Aside from being a colleague to your fellow teachers, you are now their supervisor. As you walk into the faculty room, the topics of certain conversations suddenly switch in mid-sentence. After years of being an “insider” to teacher politics, you are no longer privy to the discussions behind closed doors. Colleagues are more hesitant to share difficulties they are having with classes lest that information be used to evaluate their competence and effectiveness. Students, too, withdraw from a level of intimacy they once shared with you. After all, you now have a new role as disciplinarian and upholder of the rules. The fear of administrative retribution brings about a new hesitancy to be open, creating a gap between you and your students. And third, you are now thrust into the role of defender of the school’s policy whether or not you agree with it.
Speaking personally, the most difficult and painful aspect of taking on an administrative position lay precisely in these areas. For years I invested countless hours counseling individual students and faculty members, and expended incredible energy building relationships and earning the trust and confidence of those I served. I find myself struggling to find new ways to maintain those trusting relationships, pained by the knowledge that some of those relationships will change and that I will be viewed differently by those who surround me. The most rewarding parts of a career in Jewish education suddenly become the most elusive.
In discussions with many educators I have found two prominent factors that motivated them to enter this particular field. One is the memory of a particularly good educational role model, someone who was so inspiring in the manner with which they conducted themselves that their students felt impelled to emulate them. The other is the memory of a particularly painful educational experience so profound that it drove certain individuals to devote their lives to ensure that no one under their care would have to endure such an experience again. Every so often the teacher, and even more so the administrator, must look in the mirror and ask one of two questions: a) Am I living up to the model I set for myself to emulate? or, b) Have I become the very same person I despised as a youth?
Equally daunting is the need to maintain personal integrity while becoming attached to an institution. Individual teachers are occasionally presented with information about conflicts between teachers, between students, and between teachers and students. School policies and classroom behaviors of other
teachers are sometimes brought to attention, yet with all the above the individual teacher can remain sympathetic to the complaint while avoiding becoming embroiled in the problem. The administrator has no such luxury. He is sometimes placed in a position in which he must publicly defend a teacher while privately attempting to amend that teacher’s behavior, publicly defend a teacher he believes is less than competent, and publicly defend a policy or situation he is working desperately to change. Once again, the need to look in the mirror arises, but this time with a different question: Have I gone so far as to have lost my personal integrity?

III. Final Thought

As I pointed out in the introduction, the focus of this article is to share a series of questions with the reader. Are these the only issues educators must face? Not by any means. Are these questions solvable? That may depend on how one defines a solution. If compromise, including compromise of self, can be considered a solution, then all the above questions can be solved. If compromise is not a viable option, then perhaps none of the above issues can be resolved. It is precisely for this reason that no solutions were offered. Just questions.
At this point it would be temping to question the usefulness of publishing the musings of one educator. This article has value, I believe, for a broad spectrum of readers. For the young semikha student, aspiring to a career in education, it can provide a road map of personal crises to anticipate. The beginning educator will find validation for many of his concerns, along with the reassurance that others have trod the same path and found some way to maneuver through their quandaries. For the veteran educators and administrators it can serve as a reminder of the issues their younger colleagues grapple with, or perhaps rekindle some introspection into their own careers. Finally, for the lay leadership in the community, it should serve as an inside look at the internal struggles and introspection of the very people the community entrusts to raise the next generation of Torah committed Jewry.