Being a Jewish educator comes with plenty of perks.

  • We’re part of amazing communities – of educators, with our students, and as part of the greater Jewish people as a whole.
  • We get to be there for those elusive ‘a-ha’ moments, when everything clicks and makes sense and even inspires a learner.
  • There is always food. Always.
  • We get to read fascinating materials, dress in whimsical outfits, and sing in public, all in the name of professionalism.
  • And finally, we have the ultimate excuse to avoid awkward/difficult conversations with the ultimate cop-out: I’m wearing my educator hat.

I’m assuming that last one isn’t just me.

It started out innocently enough. I would be teaching a class on a topic that could get touchy. I’d be doing my best to uphold my educator responsibility, providing multiple perspectives, nuanced voices, and varying points of view. And then, the inevitable question would rear its head: what do you think?

I think I was teaching a class on contemporary Israel when I mastered my non-committal response. We were talking about current Israeli politics, and the high school students I was teaching wanted to know my perspective on the matter. I had shared with them that I lived in Israel for years, that I vote in Israel, and my deep identification with Zionism, but when it came to actually sharing where I stood on the nuanced issues we were discussing, I shut down. Rather than share my [potentially controversial/unexpected] views, I put on my educator mask: It’s not about what I think. My goal is to provide you with different points of view so you can think critically and develop your own perspective. I might play devil’s advocate, or challenge you, and if we come out of the semester with you being totally confused as to my actual viewpoint, that’s a win.

I really believed this to be good pedagogy. I didn’t want any student to feel like they had to disagree with me as the teacher, and I wanted to be free to both validate and challenge their budding opinions when it came to Israel. But what started as a legitimate educational choice became a cop-out. I didn’t have to deal with existential questions whenever I chose not to, because I could always play the educator card and clam up as soon as the conversation pushed me too far. I thought I was doing my students a favor by being a blank canvas on which they could try out different thoughts and beliefs, but really I was scared to articulate mine. I wanted my students to see me as a ‘together’ person, not as someone with internal contradictions, figuring it out alongside the rest of them.

I needed to take off the educator mask and embrace the messiness of what was underneath.

I realized that I needed to trust my students, and myself. In the same way that I wouldn’t ask them to do an awkward icebreaker that I wasn’t prepared to make myself equally vulnerable by taking part in, I needed to honor the risks that they were taking by sharing my own questions, dilemmas, and passionate beliefs. Of course, there needed to be balance – I needed to push myself to create a learning environment where everyone could feel comfortable and empowered to share, where they would be exposed to my perspective rather than being burdened with it.

The biggest gift that I could give my learners was to actually be my authentic self, behind my educator mask.

We only share when we feel comfortable doing so, and being vulnerable with our thoughts and feelings is a gift we offer to communities we are part of. I wanted to give my learners that gift of authenticity and the ‘real’ me.

There’s a path to navigate with all of this – having the difficult conversations is more than just stripping down to my raw soul and leaving them to deal with it. It’s a complex process of navigating those multiple perspectives, including those that may contradict mine, and creating space for all of the gray area between the black and white. It’s hard. And it’s so worth it.

If you’re interested in exploring how to do this, I encourage you to join me for my latest Gratz NEXT class: Navigating and Nurturing Complicated Conversations with Teens. We’ll be talking about all the hot topics + potential minefields – consent, #MeToo, gun control, Israel, identity development, politics – and how to approach them through a nuanced Jewish lens. Gratz NEXT classes are fully online, asynchronous learning opportunities geared towards supplementary Jewish educators, and I’d love to see you there!

This article was initially published on Samantha’s personal blog, click here to view the original.