What Sukkah Building Teaches Us About the First Year in Education

As my son and I swiftly assembled our Sukkah this year, the process felt almost routine—quite a contrast to our first year of measuring and list-making as we planned and prepared the first Sukkah in our home. Just as I was putting the ladder away, my phone rang. It was a first-year teacher calling with a classroom challenge. The timing struck me. The Sukkah and that first classroom are temporary spaces, but their lessons are enduring. It’s a path I’ve been privileged to witness many times, and its transformative power never ceases to amaze me.

As a Judaic principal, I’ve seen first-year teachers grow remarkably. They start with passion and quickly learn the profound impact they can make on students. Like refining the annual building of our Sukkahs, teachers fine-tune their abilities. Over the years, they turn initial doubts into assured choices, evolving the initial excitement into expertise.

Drawing Inspiration from the Past:

The Sukkah is a poignant reminder of when we felt divinely cared for, safe, and protected. In many ways, this is similar to nurturing an environment that great educators strive to create in their classrooms. As you navigate the intricate challenges of your first year, remember that you’re not alone. You stand on the shoulders of those teachers who have profoundly impacted your life. Was it their unwavering belief in you, their innovative methods, or their genuine care? As you navigate the intricate challenges of your first year, let these practical lessons and the inspiration from your past mentors guide and fortify your approach in the classroom.

Your Personal Report Card:

Before stepping into the whirlwind of classroom dynamics, pause for a grounding moment of introspection. Just as there are multiple ways to construct a kosher Sukkah—with four walls, three, or even two and a half—there are myriad paths to becoming an effective educator. Your unique personality and the positive connections you forge are integral to your success. In the early stages of your career, it’s easy to get swept up in external expectations or to make comparisons. Resist that pull. Remember that your teaching style can be uniquely compelling and enriched by your personality and the meaningful connections you create. Use this moment to affirm your approach, laying the foundation for a teaching experience that enriches you and your students.

The Classroom Equilibrium:

With a clear sense of self, you can now focus on the classroom environment. Just as the Sukkah is a space of joyous celebration, your classroom should be a haven of positivity that goes beyond setting clear expectations; it’s about actively encouraging a positive atmosphere. Whether through affirming language, celebrating small wins, or showing genuine enthusiasm, a positive environment is where students don’t just learn—they thrive.

Engaging the Heart and Mind:

Just as Sukkot invites us to step out and engage in the tangible experience of being in a Sukkah, authentic learning requires students to be physically, mentally, and emotionally engaged. To foster an engaging environment, consider these key elements: relatable content to connect lessons to students’ lives, interactive methods to encourage active participation, incentives, rewards to acknowledge effort and achievement, and feedback opportunities for continuous improvement.

Embracing the ‘Failing Forward’ Philosophy:

Much like overcoming the challenges of building a Sukkah, teaching is a journey where challenges are not to be seen as roadblocks but as stepping stones and opportunities.

Adopt the ‘failing forward’ mindset, where every setback and unexpected challenge is an opportunity to demonstrate your resilience and adaptability and shape your growth as an educator.

As you navigate your first year, remember you’re not alone. Just as the Sukkah serves as a reminder of our communal resilience and shared history, lean on the wisdom of seasoned educators. Seek a mentor who can be both a guide and a cheerleader, reminding you of your purpose and encouraging you to persevere.

“According to the effort is the reward.” – Ethics of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot 5:26)

This timeless teaching from Pirkei Avot reminds us that the outcomes we achieve are directly proportional to our willingness to try, engage, and grow. It encapsulates the essence of this transformative journey you’re on. Your efforts today lay the groundwork for a rewarding and impactful role, shaping the lives of countless students you’ll touch and inspire. Every lesson, every word, every effort you invest today becomes a cornerstone of the future. In your hands lies the indelible power to shape lives; never underestimate the value of this transformative journey. Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Avremi Popack, Judaic principal at the Hebrew Academy in Orange County, holds a Master’s in Educational Leadership and brings over 25 years of experience to enrich Jewish education and inspire educators. He’s passionate about fostering a collaborative, nurturing school community among parents, teachers, and administration.