I’ve been teaching for decades, of course I know best
Shaindy: Can’t you give me the space to reach the girls on my own terms?
Chaya: Why are you ignoring our hard-won advice?
My first day as a teacher was strangely reminiscent of my first day as a student: a quiver of excitement, a shiver of fear, the sweet-strong scent of countless brand-new supplies. A faculty meeting that stretched on forever and yet was far too short, fellow teachers, a maze of hallways between classrooms, two lists of names that meant nothing — and everything.
“We have a nice crowd this year,” someone said to me, approvingly. I glanced up. It was my colleague Mrs. Applebaum, the other seventh-grade mechaneches. She taught Chumash and Yahadus to both seventh-grade classes; I’d be responsible for Navi and Halachah, so I assumed we’d be seeing a lot of each other.
“Call me Chaya,” she told me in a motherly way when we first met. I smiled a bit doubtfully. She was clearly my mother’s age, if not my grandmother’s. I couldn’t really imagine being on first-name terms with her. Just a year post-seminary, I was a lot closer in age to our students than to many of the other staff members. I wondered if that would make things easier or harder.
My first teaching period was with my own class, 7A. I took attendance, trying to adjust to the sound of my voice in the silent classroom. The girls were so quiet and attentive. I hoped it was because I was doing something right.
For the first lesson, I’d planned an introductory class about fresh beginnings, getting a new personal start along with the start to the year. It wasn’t really my subject, but I tied it into Elul and the new Jewish year ahead, concluding with a story and a thought I’d heard at a shiur. I thought it was beautiful, and the girls seemed to think so too. One of the braver ones even came over at the end of the lesson and said how much she enjoyed it.
“Thank you, Miss Grossman! That was great.”
I smiled back, glad I’d made the cut. Then I turned back to repacking my bag with all the supplies, flashcards, and resources I’d prepared, wondering how I was ever going to get to the other class on time.
I met Mrs. Applebaum — Chaya — on the way. She looked perfectly composed, nothing like how I felt. “How was it?” she asked.
Remembering the avid faces and the pin-drop quiet in the room, I smiled. “I love it!” I told her.
She gave a small nod and hurried on before I could ask about 7B. I was curious if the class was similar to my own one. I was about to find out.
As it turned out, 7B was a totally different bunch — but somehow easier to engage. Yes, there were a couple of noisy ones, the room wasn’t as quick to go silent when I stood at the door. But it was easy to tell who the ringleaders were, and I decided to nip the trouble in the bud. When I finished attendance — having noted the names of the most lively-looking girls — I called on one of them to help me out at the front of the room, and sent the other to the office for something or other. That way, I managed to launch the lesson without disruption, and I kept my eye on the pair for the rest of the time, calling on them whenever it looked like they were getting antsy. Before class was over, I chose five girls to prepare a skit for the next class — making sure to include Rina and Aliza, my two “helpers.” Bingo — troublemakers turned teacher-assistants! As for the rest of the class, just as I’d suspected, with the loss of their ringleaders, they ended up channeling their spirit and energy into the class discussion. Just as I’d hoped.
“You’re a great class, so peppy and full of life,” I complimented them before I left. “A real pleasure to teach!”
I heard someone mutter from the back row, “You’re the first teacher to tell us that.” It was Rina. I pretended not to hear, but I knew it was a compliment.
I left school that day on a high.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing, though. Within a week or two I found out that when I tried to take the lesson in a more academic direction — looking inside the Navi, or explaining details in halachah — the class lost some of their interest. Or worse, there would be an outbreak of whispering or low chatter. After a few tries, I reverted back to the stories-and-activities format, letting the actual learning seep in subtly. The classes jumped at that, and I was relieved that I’d solved that issue, anyway.
Still, it was easy to doubt myself sometimes. One morning, when I was photocopying a set of 48 flashcards for each girl in the class (we’d be having a race to sort out the cards in order of pesukim, and then the girls would prepare charades for each other — a fun way to review for the test I had scheduled), Mrs. Applebaum leaned over my shoulder.
“Oooh, Shaindy, what do you have there? It looks interesting.”
I showed her, a little uncomfortable. It sounded a little silly when I was saying it over. “But you have to come see it in action, the girls get so involved in these things, they love it,” I added.
Mrs. Applebaum nodded, but she didn’t say anything else.
She called me later that night, though.
“Hi, Shaindy, sorry to bother you out of school.”
“It’s fine.” I shut my laptop, quelling the butterflies in my stomach. This couldn’t be good news.
“I just wanted to share my feelings about your lessons. It looks like you work so hard, make it fun, and so on, which is great. I’m just a little concerned if the girls are able to take in the actual material when there’s so much going on, colors, games, everything.”
Whoa. I took a breath. What should I say?
“Um, I hear you,” I stammered. “I think that they are learning, though.”
I thought of Dini and Sarah and Aliza and Breindy and the way they’d borrowed scarves and tied them together to perform their scene. That gave me confidence. “It’s just different learning styles, Mrs. Applebaum. Everyone needs something different, I’m trying to cater to that.”
“That’s great,” she said, but her voice didn’t sound it. “I’m just pointing out that sometimes the learning could get lost in the fun, you certainly don’t intend that, I’m just trying to help.”
We ended the conversation on that disquieting note. Then I remembered that she’d approached me a couple weeks back as well, asking me about my Elul lesson. She was the Yahadus teacher, after all. I’d apologized for the innocent mistake — who knew that my harmless introductory lesson would overlap with her age-old Elul syllabus? But now I wondered if there had been a subtle criticism behind that conversation, also.
The next morning, I was missing my usual energy as I prepared for school. Memories of the previous night’s conversation put a ball of unease in my stomach. Until I saw the crowd near the staff room. When I approached, a few girls broke off and came over to me eagerly.
“Miss Grossman, we want to talk to you, it’s very important, about Shabbaton rooms.”
I looked around at the bustling hallway. The bell was about to ring. “How about you girls come back during recess?”
They nodded and dispersed. I walked into the staff room smiling; the energy was back.
It was cute how they liked to talk to me. Some girls more than others, of course — a few from 7A, but surprisingly, even more from 7B. I had developed a relationship with Rina, the clique leader, and somehow it was deemed “cool” to speak to Miss Grossman during lunch break. Well, I wasn’t going to stop them — it certainly wouldn’t harm any of them to receive some advice.
Only someone didn’t seem to think so. It didn’t take long for Mrs. Applebaum to make some remark to me about the girls “banging the door down” each time I had a free period.
“They seem to really like you,” she said thoughtfully, but with that tone that said there would be a but coming. “But Shaindy, just a piece of advice from experience — don’t let them walk all over you. Setting boundaries is so important, especially in a school setting.”
Even that, though, was nothing compared to the next conversation. When Mrs. Applebaum asked me when she could “have a word,” I knew it was serious.
“This is totally l’toeles,” she said, leaning forward and actually touching my hand. “I want to hear how you’re handling the more difficult girls in my class, 7B. You know, that chevreh who sit in the back row — Rina, Leah, Aliza…”
I moved my hands to my lap, discreetly. “To be honest, it’s going well,” I said. “Rina… she’s a strong character, but she just loves extra attention, so I give her a lot of jobs and ask her to prepare stuff for the class… Aliza, too. The rest just sort of follow along when the leaders are behaving well, you know?”
She nodded. “I hear.” She didn’t sound surprised, maybe she’d known my method all along? “Shaindy, I just have to ask you, how do you think the other girls are feeling about this all, though? Like the girls who behave well all the time… maybe they’d enjoy being the ones with the important jobs, having a chance to shine, no?”
“I give them a chance also,” I said defensively. “It’s just that — I mean, Rina needs so much attention for a reason, I think she’s struggling somehow, maybe from home? If she needs it, the class should understand that.”
“But they don’t, they’re too young.” Mrs. Applebaum spoke with exaggerated sincerity, as if I was in class asking a stupid question. “They just see negative behavior being rewarded, it sort of paints the wrong picture, you know?”
I shook my head obstinately. “It’s not negative behavior, she behaves well in my class.”
“Look, Shaindy, you don’t have to agree with me, but I just want to suggest that as far as possible, give the quieter girls a chance to participate, act, go on errands, you know? It’s enough that Rina and Aliza and Leah and all of them have the popularity and lead the class outside of lessons, we don’t want them getting all the spotlight from the teachers, also.”
I was stung at the insinuation. “I always try to give everyone attention,” I said stiffly. It came out sounding lame.
I did try harder, though, because I heard her point. That day, when I was calling on volunteers for a Pictionary game on the board (we were drawing hints to different halachos and we’d write notes on them at the end of the lesson), I purposely ignored Rina’s waving hand and called on Esti, a shy girl in the corner who never participated. She shrugged and near-whispered that she didn’t want to draw, and Rina rolled her eyes. I chose brainy, overeager Chani to go to the office for supplies — she didn’t look happy, and Aliza groaned and said, “Why can’t I go?” Later, when I called on Rina for an answer, she drawled, “I don’t know… wasn’t listening.”
I felt a surge of resentment for Mrs. Applebaum. See what her advice was doing? Ruining my relationship with the most challenging girls in the class, and the others didn’t even appreciate the extra attention.
The next lesson, I slipped back into my old methods. Esti was happy to be left alone, Chani just wanted to take perfect notes, and Rina and Aliza kept me smiling and the class behaving and got their jobs done quickly and well. A few more girls wanted to talk to me after class, 7A was progressing smoothly, and I felt good again as a teacher.
Then Mrs. Newman, the principal, asked to see me. She would be coming to observe some of my classes, she said, see how I was getting along. I was surprised — lesson observations were scheduled for February and it was barely November now. No one else was being observed, even the other new teachers. And I was doing great, everyone thought so.
Well, everyone except Mrs. Applebaum, of course.
I felt a surge of resentment as I prepared extra copies of my lesson plans and activities. Mrs. Applebaum. It must be her fault. But maybe this was good, it would give Mrs. Newman a chance to see how well my classes were doing?
The lessons went smoothly, even if the girls were quieter with the principal at the back of the room. I was happy with how the games went, my story sounded dramatic even to my own ears, and we covered some ground in writing out the notes. But Mrs. Newman, when she delivered her feedback, wasn’t “100 percent satisfied with the progress of the curriculum.”
My heart thudded. Really? After all that work and effort, I was going to fail for lack of progress in material? Didn’t she realize how hard it was to keep a class engaged when you were rushing, rushing, rushing through a curriculum? What happened to reaching hearts as well as minds?
When I tried to respectfully ask questions, Mrs. Newman smiled and said, “Of course, Miss Grossman, there needs to be a balance, but I do think you’re erring on the side of too little actual learning. It’s great how you invest so much into each lesson, but we have to take a long-term view of the curriculum and make sure to keep moving forward. This is seventh grade. Next year the girls will be applying to high school, and they need a lot of yedios. It’s a competitive world out there, and our girls have to meet a certain standard. Why don’t you speak to Chaya Applebaum? She’s been teaching here for years, I’m sure she can give you some helpful tips on keeping class discipline even while teaching the more academic parts of a lesson.”
I nodded mutely and stumbled out of the office. Really? Is that what it all boiled down to?
Three girls were standing by the staff room, waiting for me. I dimly remembered promising at least two of them this recess slot. But I was in no mood to talk now. I’d have to tell them to come back another time. Maybe I should send them to Mrs. Applebaum, the expert?
I gave a sardonic, inward laugh. Yeah, right.
At the end of the day — they liked me. And I liked them, I reached them, it was working. Why wasn’t this a mark of success as a teacher? Why all the hyper-focus on curriculum, curriculum, curriculum, boundaries, fairness, subject matter?
Why was Mrs. Applebaum making me constantly doubt myself?
If I could tell Chaya one thing, it would be:
Just because my method is different doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. Can’t you give me the space to grow from my own experience and work out my own personal way to reach the students?
After 30-odd years in the classroom, it’s interesting that there’s still more to learn. Or maybe not so strange, seeing as every new year brings its challenges. Generally, I have a pretty clear idea of what those challenges will be by the end of day one, and this year was no exception. There was the clique in 7B with attitude, and 7A was a well-behaved but largely apathetic bunch. And then there was Miss Grossman, my co-teacher.
At first, I found it sweet, the way she was so eager and positive and bouncing with new ideas. She did her hair each morning like she’d be attending a wedding. She had wide gray eyes that opened even wider when she heard something new. She was as young and fresh as I was comfortably experienced. Her bag smelled of fresh leather while mine was missing a zipper and had long ago lost its stiffness. But we could work together, I was sure of that.
I’m not sure when I started doubting it. Maybe already on the first day, as we passed each other on the switch between classes. I braced myself for anything — first-year-teaching is a roller coaster like none other — but Miss Grossman just beamed at me sunnily. “I love them!” she gushed. “It’s an amazing feeling, being a teacher!”
I smiled politely, but I was a little taken aback. I couldn’t say I loved my students so vigorously after just one period. Relationships take time to build, nothing solid and real could come in an hour. Then I shrugged. She was young and idealistic, that was all. And besides, she hadn’t met up with the 7B gang yet. Some classes give a few days’ grace for new teachers; they didn’t seem the type. I hoped she would be able to handle them.
But I heard no complaints in the staff room, and Miss Grossman looked cheerful as ever when it came time to go home. Good, it was hard enough being a first year teacher. I was glad it was working out for her. I made a mental note to keep checking in, though — sometimes new teachers were nervous to reach out for help.
I didn’t have a chance to speak to her, though, in the flurry of the beginning of the school year. As Yahadus teacher, I had the extra struggle of fitting in lessons on Elul, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and somehow Succos, Hoshana Rabbah, and Simchas Torah — all within about three weeks. I’ve developed a system to cover ground fast, but even so, it’s not easy.
My first Yahadus lesson with 7B went off all wrong. I started with a mashal from the Dubno Maggid, and immediately one of the noisier members of the class stage-whispered, “Oooh, we learned that already with Miss Grossman.”
I continued without missing a beat, giving the girl (Leah? Rina? I had to learn those names already) a long look that instantly quelled the whispering. If it happened again, I’d tap her desk and instruct her to stay behind after class. It was only the second day of school though, and she subsided.
But I wondered why Miss Grossman had been teaching Yahadus. Her subjects were Navi and Halachah — no reason to cause overlap in our lessons. Especially because I could tell the story had lost its impact.
I went on with the lesson, but the excitement was gone.
I asked Miss Grossman about it, casually. “Shaindy — it’s okay if I call you that, right? I heard from my class that you told them an inspiring mashal about Elul, is that right?”
Her face lit up. She clearly loved her lessons. “Yes! I thought, what could be better than tying Elul into my introduction to the year. We were talking about new starts, and not giving up on yourself… you know, all that sort of thing. I could show you the lesson plan if you’d like.”
All that sort of thing. Basically, all my Elul lessons down the drain.
“That’s nice, I’d like to see them, even though I’ve prepared my Yahadus lessons already,” I said, hoping she’d get the subtle hint.
Shaindy looked startled. “Oh — of course, you teach about Elul. You hadn’t planned on using that same story, had you?”
“Well, to be honest, I had,” I owned. “But it’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
She looked relieved. I hoped it wouldn’t happen again, though.
We usually overlapped teaching periods — switching between the two classes midmorning — so I didn’t get much time to see her in action. Recess and lunch breaks, though, often found us waiting in line for the photocopier together. And she took forever over the photocopying, the cutting, the laminating, the patchke’ing. Her material looked interesting, if a little overdone for seventh-graders. Once, she showed me the game she was creating — some sort of matching cards, and acting out. I wondered how much learning was getting done. From my experience, students can lose out when there’s too many games. They learn what’s needed for that moment, and it’s lost the next day.
I didn’t want to come across as critical, though, so I waited until that evening to call her with my thoughts.
“I just wanted to share my feelings about your lessons.” I said, choosing my words carefully. “It looks like you work so hard, make it fun and so on, which is great. I’m just a little concerned if the girls are able to take in the actual material when there’s so much going on, colors, games, everything.”
She didn’t agree with me. “I think they are learning. It’s just different learning styles, Mrs. Applebaum. Everyone needs something different, I’m trying to cater to that.”
I wanted to tell her to call me Chaya, but it seemed the wrong moment. I gently reiterated my point, and left it at that. Everyone had their own approach to teaching, that was for sure, and it wasn’t really my business.
As time went on, though, Shaindy’s “different approach” became harder to ignore. The girls in 7A were still apathetic, no matter what I tried, although I heard the room swell with activity when Shaindy came to take over a class. I assumed it was the games and stuff, though I sometimes wondered. I even asked advice from the principal, if she thought it would be advisable to add more fun to my classes, but Mrs. Newman didn’t agree with the idea of changing the pace of my curriculum. “You’re a fantastic teacher, Chaya, you’ve been at this for years. You know your curriculum, you know how much you need to cover, and you have a really solid approach that gets the job done. We keep hearing how well-prepared the girls are for the high school entrance exams, how much information and skills you give them, and I don’t think it’s worth losing that for a few fun games. Just keep persevering. You’ve had difficult classes before.”
I certainly had. And speaking of difficult classes, there was my own class, 7B, a challenge on a good day. I found myself at odds with Rina, the class queen, far too often. Private chats, consequences, even a meeting with the principal only went so far. Many of the teachers complained about her attitude as well, and how she led her clique — and the rest of the class — by the nose.
Shaindy Grossman didn’t express any complaints though. I did some private investigating how that could be — did she have the magic key to Rina’s heart? And how could I access it?
Eventually, I got the picture. Rina or her satellites were being sent to the office with “messages” on a regular basis, lecturing to the class as “student teachers” or involved in some wacky “experiment” that allowed them to take off class time, or study “privately” in another room… no key, just rewarding bad behavior with undeserved perks.
I was frustrated. Besides the long-term harm to the girls themselves, this would not have a good effect on the class. What would they learn from this — that it paid to misbehave? That even the teacher was deceived by the class queen’s charisma? Was it a popularity contest, get attention by being the loudest? It wasn’t the message I wanted my class to hear.
Then there was the Shabbaton incident. Girls this age can be petty about room allotments, and unfortunately there are often girls who get hurt. I always told over a certain story, about a sick girl, and her classmates’ regret at not having been more b’achdus before. Somehow, though, the response was lame. A few girls snickered, someone whispered something, probably cynical. I felt my energy draining — why were all my usual tricks falling flat?
One of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is the personal side of it. Usually, by this time of year, I had a relationship with at least a few girls. But this year, it was pitifully few. Chani, an academic star, liked to come and review a meforash every so often, but that was about all.
I tried to give it time, but then I noticed seventh-graders hanging around waiting for Miss Grossman. Every day. And it wasn’t just the girls from her homeroom — there were girls from mine, too. Now that was okay, in theory. I’d often found that students chose which teacher to confide in based on their own personality, rather than who was their assigned mechaneches — but really? Everyone? Including — I blinked as I passed by — Rina?
I tried to stay out of it — my own hurt feelings weren’t worth an argument — but then I wondered whether the dynamics at play were healthy. Once too often I’d seen it become a fad to speak to a certain teacher, to the point that girls were exaggerating or even fabricating stories in order to get attention. I mentioned something to Shaindy, couching it in advice about setting boundaries, but she just blinked and said, “Don’t worry, I’m taking care of it.”
Then I tried again, this time discussing the 7B clique. “I want to hear how you’re handling the more difficult girls in my class, 7B. You know, that chevreh who sit in the back row…” I was proud of the opening — it sounded like I was complimenting her technique.
Of course, she shared her approach. “It’s going well. Rina, she just loves extra attention, so I give her a lot of jobs and ask her to prepare stuff for the class… Aliza, too. The rest just sort of follow along when the leaders are behaving well, you know?”
Now was my chance. “Shaindy,” I began delicately. “I just have to ask you, how do you think the other girls are feeling about this all, though? Like the girls who behave well all the time… maybe they’d enjoy being the ones with the important jobs, having a chance to shine, no?”
She defended herself, something about Rina struggling — how exactly did she know that Rina had difficulties at home? — and the other girls understanding. “But they don’t, they’re too young.” I sharpened my tone a little. “They just see negative behavior being rewarded, it sort of paints the wrong picture, you know?”
“But she behaves well in my class.”
Was that a barb?
We ended the conversation soon after that. I doubted it made any difference.
The next week, I got a phone call from a parent. Esti was such a quiet student that I was surprised to hear it, but apparently she’d been complaining to her mother about the “snobby clique” that insisted on the whole class doing as they decided.
“And it’s even being fed by teachers!” Mrs. Schneider complained. “Esti said that one of the teachers had to leave a few minutes early — and she left this girl Rina in charge of the class! Of course they’re going to have these bullying problems if teachers are condoning it!”
I didn’t have to ask which teacher it was. Instead, I took it to the top. If even the parents were complaining, it was time to tell the principal.
Mrs. Newman, was thoughtful when she heard the story. Once I was speaking to her, I mentioned the other points as well: the overabundance of stories and games, the slow progress through the curriculum, the private conversations with girls.
“She’s a powerful personality,” Mrs. Newman observed. “And with time, she’ll probably get the balance. But I’ll go and observe a few lessons. Maybe I’ll suggest that she come to you for help with lesson planning.”
I swallowed my doubts. I didn’t hear back from either of them, though, even after I saw Mrs. Newman observing a couple of lessons. And the staff room door was still surrounded by eager gaggles of girls waiting for Miss Grossman.
This new teacher was not setting boundaries. Nor was she winning the girls’ favor in the right way — through lessons that sharpened their minds and skills, and through fair and equal treatment.
I waited purposefully for the girls to let me through.
“Oooh, Mrs. Applebaum,” Aliza piped up. “Maybe you can help us out?”
A little hope rose inside me.
“Can you please tell Miss Grossman that we’re waiting?”
The hope deflated. Annoyance took its place. Why were the girls so blinded by this newcomer who thought teaching was a popularity contest?
If I could tell Shaindy one thing, it would be:
Why won’t you accept the advice of those who’ve been in the field for years, so that we can educate, not just entertain?
(Originally featured Mishpacha, Issue 777)