Using Jewish Ethics To Empower Teachers and Students: An Interview with Hanan Harchol

By Adina Kay-Gross

What is the power of teaching?

This was the question Hanan Harchol began from when creating the animation, “My Teacher,” the most recent entry in Jewish Food for Thought, a collection of animated shorts that teach Jewish ethics to adults and teens using thought provoking and funny conversations between animated versions of Hanan and his Israeli parents.

Hanan, an animator and a New York City Public School teacher, has many answers to the question. His teacher, whom he honors in this animation, instilled confidence in him, focused on his talents so that he could see himself clearly, gave him space to create, never made him feel ashamed. She supported him, nurtured him. She stepped aside when it was time for him to move on and move forward. In short, Hanan’s teacher did what every excellent teacher does: she empowered him.

And now, 20 years later, Hanan has taken the lessons he learned from his most treasured teacher and is empowering students of his own. At the High School of Art and Design on the East Side of Manhattan, he teaches a film production course, where – to date – his students have been awarded over $95,000 in prizes for their films.

“When you see a group of students being acknowledged for the hard work they’ve put into creating something,” Hanan said, “you realize what your essential role is, as their teacher: to help them recognize and build upon their own abilities.”

“To me, this is so closely related to Jewish wisdom,” Hanan continued. “In Judaism, there’s a teaching by Rabbi Nachman that tells us to focus on the light inside of every human being. When you focus on the light in a person, they focus on it as well and the light begins to grow. In teaching, when you help a student see their light, their potential, it begins to grow. This wisdom has shaped my philosophy as a teacher: focus on the parts inside a student that are fantastic. Then, the student will begin to see that within him or herself.”

When Hanan joined the faculty of his school in 2009, he was charged with writing his film/video course curriculum from scratch. The school is a Career and Technical Education (CTE) high school, where students pick an industry-standard art major which they study over three years in addition to their regular academic courses. Operating within the guidelines set by his school, industry, and New York State CTE standards, he ensured that the course met all objectives coincident to project-based learning and other necessary theoretical concepts.

At the end of the three-year course, students must take a film editing exam given by Adobe Systems, the computer software company. So far, there’s been a 100% passing rate for Hanan’s students, despite the fact that many of his students struggle in other courses, like Math and English. Hanan credits this success rate to the Jewish concept of na’aseh v’nishmah, first do, and then learn.

“Everything is hands-on,” Hanan explained. “Every six weeks, my students produce a short film from beginning to end, in small groups, with individual edits. Their first draft films are often problematic, but every six weeks they repeat the process from beginning to end, reinforcing what they’ve learned, while building on their technical and theoretical knowledge from film to film; learning by doing.”

Pedagogues might call this “kinesthetic” learning, Hanan noted. Learning in this way, he added, means students are apt to retain the knowledge they’ve acquired much more intensely – the theories aren’t esoteric ideas floating around in space, rather, they’re ideas that are attached to actions, to a project, to something that is created. They do, and they learn.

Hanan is quick to note that this propitious synchronicity he has experienced, between his study of Jewish ethics and his public school teaching career, wasn’t immediately evident. On the contrary, he shared, the first two or three years of teaching were extremely difficult, and he considered quitting many times.

“So many urban schools across the country, struggle to hold on to teachers, who often stay a year or two, and then quit,” Hanan explained. “In fact, around 50% of public school teachers leave the profession within 5 years.”

Hanan added that often the problem is that teachers are not given the proper training to reach students who might come from challenging backgrounds. A new teacher may know how to teach the subject at hand, but they don’t necessarily know how to engage and motivate students who might come into the class with reading levels that are well below their grade level, challenging socioeconomic and/or family situations, or other circumstances that put the students at a disadvantage and create an environment that can be overwhelming for a new teacher.

“One of the things that has allowed me stay in teaching and persevere, is that I’ve tried to use Jewish values and wisdom to help me re-focus and re-channel my energies, Hanan said. “Jewish teachings have actually made me a better teacher for my students,” he added.

“In my first year of teaching, I spent a great deal of time considering leaving the teaching profession. It was too hard. But ultimately, instead of fighting my students and insisting on winning every battle,” he said, “I needed to learn to stand in their shoes. I needed to shift the focus away from me, not take things as personally, and learn to make it about the student and his/her experience and reality.”

“It’s a learning experience,” he continued. “I have to keep reminding myself that I was fortunate to grow up where I did, in a home and environment where I had everything I needed and all the necessary support. I needed to find a way to connect with students who in many cases had a reality very different from mine. And I found the answer rooted in 1,000 years of Jewish wisdom, in Jewish ethical teachings on judging others in a favorable light, loving kindness, and most importantly, humility.”

This struggle to retain great teachers in challenging learning environments is not new. Across the board in the field of education, teachers are routinely overlooked, underpaid, and underprepared for the challenges they face in the classroom. To that end, Hanan is now in the process of raising money to shoot a live-action feature-length film, a dramatic scripted piece, which he hopes will raise awareness about the challenges teachers face. The film will focus on the life of a New York City public school teacher; all of the events depicted in the film are based on events that happened in Hanan’s first five years of teaching and the students featured are Hanan’s former students who have come back to participate in the project. He explained that Jewish teachings aren’t necessarily articulated directly in this film, and yet, and he considers this in many ways to be the most Jewish film he’s made yet.

“What connects me to the wisdom and values of our ancient tradition is how those teachings can be applied so readily to every day life,” Hanan said.” “To help us live more meaningful and impactful lives. Living Jewish values for me, means trying to remind myself that every interaction with another human being, is an opportunity to improve my relationship with other people and improve myself. How am I treating others? How can I use my gifts, my blessings, to most effectively become a blessing in other people’s lives?”

“Being a teacher is very much like being a parent,” he continued. “You give, and you give, and you give, and paradoxically, through all of that struggle, you receive the greatest gift.”

This article originally appeared in Sight Line, the digital journal of the Covenant Foundation; it is reprinted with permission.

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