To Teach Means to be Exposed: Balancing Student Autonomy with Teacher Guidance in a Judaics Classroom

Jonah Potasznik

Being a teacher is hard. Being a new teacher is incredibly hard. On the days when it is hardest—and thank God the hardest days seem to come less frequently in my third year teaching than they did in the first—a line from a mentor of mine, Leah Rosenthal, pops into my head: “To teach means to be exposed.”

Leah told me this literally in passing as we were walking in opposite directions down the long hallway at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. I was nervous about an upcoming one-off lesson I was to teach that week to a group of visiting Jewish professionals, and the anxiety-produced knot in my stomach was already in full force. It’s hard to call Leah’s line “advice,” because it was not framed as a piece of sage wisdom she, the master pedagogue, was passing down from on high to a novice teacher. She was not trying to rid me of my anxiety or in any way fix the situation. It was, in true Leah fashion, just a short, honest statement of fact. For everyone, regardless of the amount of experience they have in the classroom and their level of mastery over the texts, to teach means to be exposed. So one better get used to that pre-lesson stomach knot.

The Intimacy and Anxiety of Teaching

One of the reasons the line is so powerful to me is because it recognizes as natural the anxiety and uncertainty I feel daily as a young teacher. I know I am not the only one of my friends whose job gives them those stomach knots on a regular basis, keeping them up late or waking them up before their alarm goes off in the morning. I am sure many people across a wide range of professions feel personally attached to their work in a way that makes their on-the-job performance feel like a direct assessment on their worth as human beings.

But I cannot help but feel that there is an intimacy to the job of teaching that very few other professionals know. What other job asks its practitioners to bring so much of themselves as human beings into their day-to-day work? To share one’s thoughts, assumptions, lines of logic, with a group of students, at times complete strangers? To hold something up that one cares about to learners, and try to communicate to them why it is important that they care about it as well?

The challenge only grows for Judaics teachers in liberal or community day schools, where one is oftentimes fighting negative assumptions about Jewish learning held by students or their parents. In such environments, the task is not really just to teach content, but to be a personal model for a relevant, meaningful vision of Judaism in the 21st century.

The Autonomous, Neoliberal Student

However, more recently, I have come to see Leah’s line not just as a recognition of teaching’s challenges, but as a call: to think of teaching as an act of exposure positions the act of teaching itself as a countercultural and courageous moral stance within our society’s wider cultural framework.

The modern neoliberal world—the world in which I teach, in which human interactions have a transactional nature and relationships become a material to be capitalized upon—posits a certain model for citizenship: A fully fledged human being is self-reliant, empowered to make their own decisions and unencumbered by the assumptions of the past. This model has analogues within the walls of the modern liberal classroom: The fully fledged student is self-reliant (needing to produce knowledge self-generatively in project-based assignments that provide structures for knowledge construction but not the content itself) and empowered (learning culminates with the student being able to come up with the right answer for themselves).

As a young person who grew up myself in this very world, I have a natural appreciation for the insights of contemporary progressive education. I understand that human beings both process and express information in myriad ways and that this should be reflected in our assessment practices. I know that it is important to empower learners to come to their own conclusions through self-generative and project-based learning activities and that traditional, hierarchical classroom structure often stifle student creativity and motivation.

But the model of teaching as exposure has allowed me to question some of its assumptions. The values espoused by progressive educational ideology—self-reliance and student empowerment—have their flip side. Encouraging citizens (or students) to be empowered and self-reliant can at the same time excuse those in power (or teachers) from their responsibility for and involvement in the creation of a safer, fairer, more giving and more compassionate society. It is easier to tell poor citizens to pull themselves up by their bootstraps than creating a society in which people’s basic needs (shelter, health, education) are tended for, a society in which we dare to assume our dependence on others.

And in the same way, it is easier to have students produce a skit on a given perek, ostensibly to show their individual interpretation of its contents, than to assume the inherently asymmetrical nature of that relationship and take responsibility for the fact that I as the teacher have an obligation to 1) share relevant ideas and teach specific concepts that students cannot arrive at by themselves, based on my knowledge of Jewish texts, and 2) turn Jewish knowledge into part of the moral upbringing of students.

Inserting an Educational Frame

On a practical level this means, essentially, doing more as a teacher. Here’s an example from my experience teaching the story of Shimshon from the book of Judges. One can have students learn the appropriate chapters in chevrutah, perhaps even with a well-thought-out question-asking routine for students to follow while reading, and regular class check-ins and discussions. Then, one can go into a creative assessment, where students demonstrate their learning through an art project in which they draw Shimshon as they visualize him based off the details provided to them by the text.

However, one also can insert a step before the assessment, in which one highlights certain textual details of the story in a way that allows students to see Shimshon as a tragic figure, attempting to escape the burden of responsibility placed upon him by his people while simultaneously craving for their acceptance and a feeling of belonging. Such a teaching move may involve a frontal component of class, like a lecture. In this way, it runs counter to the current pedagogical zeitgeist. But the very point is to bring an idea, or a perspective, to the students that they would not have gotten using only their own resources.

In this lecture, I as a teacher would be doing two very important things: using my specialized knowledge to help my students reach a plane of knowledge they could not reach on their own, and taking responsibility for their moral development, exposing them to ethical ideals or dilemmas that they could not reach on their own. This teaching move requires me to give my students of my knowledge, my perspective, my experiences: the resources that make me the person and the teacher I am. It is exposing and, indeed, terrifying. But if I am exposed, I cannot be replaced, nor can they.

The Courage to Care

If teaching means to be exposed, it means that teaching is a project where one is constantly reaching out to one’s students from a place of care for and responsibility towards them. This is why it is terrifying, because such a reaching out implies the possibility of rejection, but so necessary in today’s political and pedagogical climate. Our world and the world of our students is one in which we are simultaneously empowered—able to do what we want, when we want—and cut off, disconnected from the kind of meaningful relationships that give us feelings of safety and belonging. In other words, it is one in which we are all exposed. The teacher is the brave one who reaches out despite it all. In so doing, they not only provide students with new knowledge they could not have otherwise; they provide them with a new way of envisioning the world in which we are not so alone.

This understanding of my role as a teacher does nothing to resolve the stomach knots I still get before I teach a lesson for the first time. But it provides a helpful frame in which the stomach knot itself becomes a sign of the value of being a Judaics teacher in the 21st century classroom. To teach means to be exposed, and that means that my colleagues and I are involved in an important countercultural project, with all the attendant anxieties. To teach means to be exposed, and that means a teacher challenges widespread cultural assumptions about the place of care in communal spaces. To teach means to be exposed, and that means being a teacher gives one the chance to create an alternate vision for the world in one’s classroom, a world in which being a fully fledged human means being responsible for others.

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HaYidion Spring 2022, Value Proposition
Value Proposition
Spring 2022