Meet the Chinuch Shluchim: Rabbi Mendel Meyers, a fifth-grade teacher at Cheder Menachem in Los Angeles, California on how curiosity and unique hobbies outside of school have made him a better teacher.
Where did you grow up and what are some of your favorite childhood memories?
I grew up in southern California and had a very nature-oriented childhood. My mother would often take us on all sorts of camping trips to the Sierra Nevada mountain range, trips to the beach, and gave us lots of exposure to the outdoors.
Did you always want to be a teacher?
Not even remotely. From a young age, I dreamed of opening a Chabad House catering to the absolutely unaffiliated. For the first two years of my marriage, we looked for Shlichus and found a position we thought was ideal – a remote and far-flung place.
So what changed?
The Shlichus opportunity we were considering came with the considerable challenges of living in a remote area. One of them was that we’d have to educate our children on our own. So I signed up for a MEF teacher training seminar to build up my skill set and quickly found that I enjoyed teaching.
While my heart was in that particular small-town-USA Shlichus, we did not receive a clear bracha from the Rebbe for it. We then got a phone call that a day school in Buffalo was looking for a couple to come out and work in Chinuch full-time.
I called my Mashpia. He said the Rebbe said if one has a talent in Chinuch, they have a responsibility to make that their Shlichus. We decided to go to Buffalo and my teaching career began.
Any memorable teaching moments from your time in Buffalo?
Buffalo is a very sweet and tight-knit community. It was a great first teaching experience. As a teacher, I always look for ways to get my students moving, especially during the winter when we are mostly indoors. We fundraised and got a climbing wall that we spent our next snow days installing. It was fabulous! It allowed children to get moving and compete while interacting with information and learning skills. The wall was versatile and could easily be used for physical activity and educational games, learning, and review activities. Honestly, it was such a fulfilling experience. A mini Gan Eden in Chinuch.
What are your current teaching hours?
Contractually, I work 30 classroom hours a week. Realistically, I put in many more hours. I invest vast amounts of time into creating engaging PowerPoints, animations, and videos. In addition, I’ve taken on a new role as Director of SEL Curriculum, written by Menachem Education Foundation, and being implemented in Cheder Menachem. These vital lessons introduce essential skills in Social and Emotional Learning to the teachers of younger grades who in turn teach those lessons to their students.
What is your favorite part of teaching?
When a student takes on a leadership role in the classroom. When he can use my PowerPoint and effectively hold the class’s attention and teach the lesson to the class. When classroom routines have become so naturally ingrained in my students that they can study in their own chavrusos and small groups, that is a real feeling of accomplishment.
What is the most used app on your phone?
What are your hobbies and interests outside of teaching?
Everything outdoors and active. I love bicycling, starting every day with a 10-mile ride. I go surfing in the Pacific Ocean. Our family enjoys camping, hiking and we are raising a vegetable and herb garden, sometimes with surprise plants from our own compost. I enjoy woodworking, wood burning, and getting creative with items we find in nature. I have a Menorah on my front lawn made out of tree logs that has become quite the conversation piece in the neighborhood and brought many Yidden to our doorstep.
Are you able to bring any of those hobbies into the classroom?
Being in nature can challenge us to get creative and come up with alternative solutions, but most of all, it enables us to marvel at the beauty of Hashem’s world and how gracefully elements come together to form a grand masterpiece. Translating that into the classroom, I’ve found that approaching our youth with the same creativity and readiness to adjust to meet their needs allows for far more success and satisfaction for both teacher and student.
Most of all, the attitude that every child is Hashem’s grand masterpiece allows for limitless success and ambition for growth. I also strive to share my outdoor hobbies with my students by taking them on hikes and getting creative with lots of outdoor games. I think there’s a lot of value to spending time with your students outside of the formal classroom setting, whether in the schoolyard or on an off-campus excursion such as a hike, ballgame, or barbecue.
Can you share a teaching tip for parents and educators?
Be curious. Be as curious as you can about the child’s potential and strengths, as well as the child’s challenges. Parents, be curious about your child’s teacher. Teachers, be curious about what may be going on at home. There is always another layer to what is really going on.
Curiosity helps me advance in all my interests in and out of the classroom. As a lifelong learner, when I take my surfboard out to the ocean and see kids half my age effortlessly gliding across the water — something I’ve never done before – I get curious about it and I learn. Get in touch with the right teacher, the right guidance, and with enough perseverance and siyata dishmaya and you will figure it out.
Believing that you can always grow and never giving up on your personal growth as well as your children’s growth is essential to success in chinuch.
What would you tell someone who is considering making Chinuch their Shlichus?
Ase lecha rav. You must have a mentor-mechanech who can guide and inspire you. When I was starting out, someone recommended that I observe Rabbi Yossi Raskin, a 5th-grade Rebbi in Oholei Torah. I benefited so much from watching him teach; he has coached me many times. There have been times when I’ve faced rough patches and Rabbi Raskin never turned down my phone calls. He would patiently listen and guide me through the newest challenge in the classroom. Having that mentorship has been invaluable.
What do you picture the future of Chabad Chinuch, and how can we best prepare for it?
The Rebbe always encouraged growth, forward movement, and utilization of resources gifted to us by Hashem in our generation. Our Chabad Houses’ Hebrew Schools make everything colorful, engaging, and jam-packed with content; we need to do the same in our day schools. The world provides many distractions, and we need to counter that with relevant and engaging lessons and modalities of learning. We need to explore our students’ interests, connect with them and be emotionally present for them.
Yes, we need some old-fashioned sitting in front of a Sefer. No device or modern invention can replace the Sinaic experience of a heiligeh sefer. But we also need to get them moving. Figure out their interests and make learning relevant to them. The leading question in Chinuch should always be “What do my students need?” If we focus on their needs, we will get the job done.