by Vale Levin, originally published in Spanish for Jeducation World
If there is one place that is generally dreaded by students, it is the teachers’ lounge. Sometimes it is a dark corner, other times it is a central place, a panopticon, of the school and its recess areas. In this space, teachers gather impatiently when the recess bell rings, almost as impatient as the students are, in order to take a break and enjoy a cup of coffee, tea or a good conversation. It oftens reigns like a constant whisper. There, many decide on how to continue their course, but alongside their peers. Sometimes, the mood is festive after winter or summer holidays. Sometimes, the mood is tense, especially, for example, when the conversations turn to politics. The funny thing is, for many students, the faculty area is a place of mystery. It is so mysterious that once a student asked me, “How do teachers fight in the teachers’ lounge?” This word, “fight,” stuck in my head. Especially since the term they used was not argue, but fight specifically.
For many years, I taught in public schools in disadvantaged areas with very vulnerable populations. The rules are unique. The words are different. The resources are unfamiliar. Social inequalities sometimes lead me to understand that the tools available were limited, and I had difficulty making my students understand that their resources could be extended, especially in material terms. I lost that battle. Yet, there was another battle that I was determined to wage, and that was the battle for words. I was sure that, whatever the origin of my pupils, no matter how little luck they had at home, linguistically they could go a lot further than they were. Really, much further. During recess, fights were common, and they often got out of hand. This violence is not inherent in schools with vulnerable populations. Not at all. Violence can occur in all social spheres, and it is our duty as educators to eradicate it alongside inequalities. Yet, the truth is, every time my students resorted to beatings, it was very difficult for me to make them understand that any disagreement could be resolved through talking. One day, a student responded to me with, “but you, in the teachers’ lounge, you fight, and when the bell rings you go back to the class and forget you fought.” It was funny how my student wanted me to understand his fury through an example he believed was my reality but in fact was not. It was true that there are fights in the teachers’ lounge, but we never went so far as to use violence to resolve those altercations. There was never a question of forgetting the conflict when the bell ran. It did indeed continue, but in a discursive manner, always in the realm of words.
Recently, my dear colleague Faustine provided me with resources to help me understand what occurs during these fights from the point of view of Judaism. “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai.” (Pikei Avot 5:17) Hillel and Shammai had deep disagreements, but they did not argue in order to convince one another, or in order to obtain a final victory. Rather, they argued in order to discover truth through the eyes of the other. Sometimes, we laugh and joke at the classic “two Jews, three opinions” line, but this joke has a background that can be linked back to the sources. We are able to debate our position, listen to that of the other person, and even accept a third opinion as a conclusion. And how beautiful it is when that happens! Because, this means that during our dialogue we were open to the opinions of others, open to accepting another point of view. This is Judaism: a culture that encourages debate, opens doors to differences and allows for the exchange of ideas, not simply to triumph one over the other, but rather primarily in order to pursue a plurality of views. Perhaps this diversity can cause us to think so deeply that we go off the subject at times but at other times it is enriched discursively and intellectually.