Adapted from the original Hebrew article by Bazy Rubin –
“Our children are falling behind!”, “The long term damage will take years to recover from.. They may not ever recover at all.” “We must reopen schools immediately so the students don’t miss too much material!” These are just a few of the headlines I’ve been seeing lately on the news, in different neighborhood whatsapp groups, on emailing lists. Everyone has completely lost their bananas and I feel I need to respond to these apocalyptic prophecies before our students suffer. There is an ever growing gap, as students stay home from school and turn to a very poorly managed Zoom system. And I understand, they are not learning as much as they should, but perhaps there is another perspective we need to take into account here?
Almost a decade ago I taught at a Jewish school in Australia, and fell completely in love with it. Much of how I teach today is due to my experience working with the educational staff there. They taught me how to behave in front of students, with comfort and lots of love, and to get the most out of my time with them. The students themselves were so sweet, and it was one of the most enriching periods of my life. Every day, I went to class to teach Hebrew or Jewish holidays, having to work with both weak and strong students. All of my students excelled. They struggled, but they still did well in their exams. There was just one subject where I noticed things were lagging, where I felt it was a bit neglected, and it made me a bit sad. At first, I thought that perhaps the weaker students were holding the class behind, but as I continued to teach I realized that there was a serious problem here.
My students in both the first and sixth grade were learning almost the exact same materials for Hebrew! No, I’m not confused, it was very clear to me! Yes, the students in first grade had to learn their letters, and by the time they were in third grade they could write in it, but the gap in educational level between third and sixth grade was so small. How is this possible? After all, every year the material I had to teach advanced, yet I was still sitting with fifth graders and reminding them what the mark under each letter does and how to read a word. How could it be that, in a school that gives so much to its students, that there is a subject that they are so stuck in with so little effort or progress?
One of my closest friends at the school was part of the Hebrew teaching staff. I sat with her in order to gain an understanding of exactly what was happening here. After all, in arithmetic and science classes, the students were progressing excellently. Why is it not the same in Hebrew? “You have to understand,” she explained to me, “the children are not interested in learning Hebrew. They live here, in Australia, most of them do not come from religious families, so the argument that they need to know how to read to pray or say a blessing does not speak to them at all. “So, we have to adapt ourselves to their rhythm. If a child finishes primary school here and knows how to read simple words like ‘dog’, ‘beautiful’, or ‘hello’ we have done our part”. At the time, I was shocked. It took me a while to process what she was saying. A young and naive 21 year old, I questioned her outlook and thought it to be an excuse. Nine years and one global pandemic later and I can see that this is actually a much healthier outlook regarding education.
I was recently reminded of this issue of gaps that we as teachers must close for our students. Whether it’s through Zoom or within the classroom, my heart aches for real face to face classes with my students. In more routine times, we have important benchmarks that we strive to reach with our students. Those are important. After all, everyone wants a way to quantify the material studied, and it is extremely important to understand where each student is. I, as a student, made tremendous efforts to express the material I learned in assignments, and, as a teacher, I hope to pass on that willingness to make the effort.
If our students are elsewhere either academically or emotionally, we too must make an effort to adapt ourselves to this reality. I do not know when we will return to the classroom, but I would hope that instead of trying to cram as much material as possible in order to make ends meet, we could work harder to accommodate our students. Help them digest this difficult year. Give them the confidence by showing them that they are alright, even if they are missing school and not necessarily where we would expect them to be each day. Show them that they are one-hundred percent fine, that we, as educators, know how to convey the important lessons that they really need to progress academically. If they really know how to write ‘dog’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘hello’, but know that they are cared for and loved, they can relax and know that things are okay.