Last year, reading the submissions and making the reference calls for the Chinuch Award nominees was a tremendous privilege, and truly inspirational. I remember thinking about whether it would be possible to move my family every year, so that my own children could have this great teacher in Miami, and next year another one in L.A., then back to Crown Heights, and so on.
Eventually, though, I realized that not only is that not possible (or desirable), it isn’t at all needed, because the Chinuch Awards showed me is that great teachers are out there. They are everywhere, in all of our schools and communities, those who were nominated and those who weren’t. They simply need to be found, and highlighted the way the Chinuch Awards allowed us to do, so that more teachers can be great, like them. And this is what great teachers, I learned, look like:
- Great teachers are always learning.
A great teacher never feels, “I have arrived.” For example, one of the teachers nominated attends every MEF workshop that she can possibly make it to, sitting in the front row, receptive, listening and contributing. Only once I called up her principals did I find out that she gives workshops herself.
The great teachers we encountered have this in common: that they never stop learning, innovating, trying new things, bending their comfort zone. They are thirsty for great ideas that can work in their classroom. They are too busy bettering themselves and their skill set to realize how great they already are.
- Great teachers are not all alike.
Looking at profiles of great teachers is like looking at a kaleidoscope – they are all different. There are the outspoken, the charismatic, the soft-spoken and even shy. They connect to their students through academics; they connect to their students at recess. They are creative; they are tech savvy; they are old-fashioned but filled with passion. They are twenty, forty, sixty years old.
They are as different as the things people said about them: “She never lets a question go unanswered.” “He always knew my feelings.” “She is an actress in the classroom.” “He is a true Dugma Chaya.” “She pushes her students to think.” “He gives them cookies on Rosh Chodesh.” “She never let me give up.”
This means that you can be a great teacher. Yes, you – adding your own unique color to the kaleidoscopic world of great education. And there is a Hashgacha Pratis to each teacher matched up to the students in their classroom, because it’s you they need, to be your kind of great.
- Great teachers care.
Their students know it. The parents know it. The community knows it. Granted, not everyone has the opportunity to start a school in their basement, as one awardee did. But each great teacher, in their own way, lets their students know that they are important, and not only in the classroom.
Great teachers reach out. They form relationships. They ask their students how they are feeling. They treat them to Parsha popcorn and Rosh Chodesh cookies. They are there to support them after hours, and if time doesn’t allow it, they make sure their students are directed to other sources of the support that they need.
This is why great teachers are remembered, for years afterward. We had a parent nominating her married son’s first-grade teacher. That’s a long time to remember someone, and they are remembered because they care.
- Great teachers teach.
Some students learn because they love their teachers. Others love their teachers because they learn. But whichever comes first, the love or the learning, great teachers know that learning matters.
We know that children remember teachers for their caring. But to those who say that most children will never remember what they learned in school, that’s not true. I was once in a room full of teachers asked to reflect on a positive memory from when they were students. In addition to the moments of caring and connection, there were moments, plenty of moments, of breakthroughs in learning. The moment someone was first able to navigate a page of Gemara on their own. The moment a Dikduk Rashi first made sense. And these moments were echoed in the nominations: teachers who took students who used to cry at the mere sight of a test, and empowered them to climb to the top of the class. Teachers who made students feel, “I can.”
Whether using cutting-edge methodology or just sheer determination, great teachers figure out what their students need to learn and how they can learn it, and with patience, diligence and creativity, make that happen.
- Great teachers try, try hard, and keep on trying. Until their students succeed. And then they try some more.
They don’t give up. They really don’t give up. On any student.
They measure success differently than the rest of us. Not by “eighty percent of the class”, or “the middle third”, or, as long as the students are doing what they need to do. They measure success in terms of every child. They measure success in terms of tapping a student’s true potential.
The most powerful line I heard from one of last year’s awardees, Mrs. Miriam Gerber, was, “I’m a new teacher every year.” When she walks into a classroom filled with new students, her years of experience and habit fall away, because these new students need her to figure them out, and become who they need her to be.
She tries. All great teachers try. Every great teacher is great not in the achieving, but in the trying. In that they never give up. They try new methods. They speak to the parents. They speak to the students. The colleagues. The professionals. They do what their students need them to do.
Like a parent, they don’t take breaks. They don’t take a break from caring, and so, they don’t take a break from trying.
What all this means, to me, is that everyone can be a great teacher. You don’t have to be a special breed of human being, “born to teach.” You just need to keep learning, care about your students and care about teaching them, and never stop trying.
Great teachers are out there, and there are many more who are becoming great, not in small part by knowing these great teachers and emulating them. The nomination process taught me what greatness is, and, therefore, that our community is rich with true greatness in Chinuch. It gave me hope for my children’s future, and renewed my commitment to celebrating teachers at MEF, because this kind of greatness is contagious.
That’s why the Chinuch Awards are once again open for nominations, this year taking a closer look at one aspect of great teaching. Please join us once again in celebrating great teachers, and inspiring all teachers to be great. Please join us in saying “thank you, and please keep doing what you’re doing,” to the teachers who shape our children’s lives in positive ways.
After nearly a decade as a teacher and curriculum director, Mrs. Chanah Rose has taken her passion for education to the next level in her role as MEF’s educational director, where she works with teachers, schools and other constituents to bring MEF’s lofty educational goals to life in the classroom. Mrs. Rose also leads the women’s division of TIP.