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Posts Tagged ‘respecting teachers’

m An Angel (malach) in More Ways Than One

            This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is mostly an elaboration of the law code Moses receives on Israel’s behalf.  Then, after the litany of laws comes to an end, Torah gives us this passage, “Behold, I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have made ready.  Take heed of him and listen to his voice.  Do not rebel against him for he will not bear your transgressions as my name is within him.”  The angel (malach) is to guide the people’s way to the Promised Land.

In my first year of Rabbinic School in Jerusalem, one of my classmates gave a d’var Torah on that passage.  She proposed that the angel was, in fact, Moses, who while not a divine being, was the bearer of holiness on behalf of the people.  It was Moses who was the link between the Divine and the children of Israel, being a combination of guardian, leader, guide and teacher.  Indeed, this last role, that of teacher, is forever concretized by our referring to Moses as Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses our teacher.  She supported her argument by the fact that no where in either the torah portion or the rest of the book of Exodus does an angel appear.  She points to Nachmanides commentary that a divine being was not necessary while Moses was alive.  Moses was the bearer of God’s power on God’s behalf, indicated by the pharase, “my name is within him.”

My classmate made another great point in her sermon.  Each of us studying to be rabbis had the same potential as Moses to be a malach.  As we guide people in times of need, teach the mitzvoth, or lead in the acts of prayer – each of us has the potential to be the link between the human and the divine.  Each of us has the potential to lead those around us to a Promised Land – a place of deeper Jewish understanding, of spiritual and people connection.  It was a beautiful d’var Torah and I particularly liked the way she saw the angel as a teacher of Torah, facilitating Jewish learning on all levels.  I think, however, there is an application of the verse, of the concept of people as malachim that goes beyond being teachers within the Jewish world.

This fall I began mentoring a little boy in an elementary school.  He is 6 years old – a first grader.  He is from a family that is clearly not well off and has trouble providing the learning support he will need to achieve any degree of success in this world.  He is struggling with math, not so unusual really.  My job as his mentor is to help him learn some basic math concepts so that he will not become another angry adolescent in 6 or 7 years – frustrated with a system he could not learn and ready to rebel against the institution that seemed to cause his frustration.  That would be such a shame, as he is a really sweet little kid, who is thrilled when he does well and gives the right answer.  But the point of this is not either me as mentor or the boy as student.

I had not set foot in an elementary school classroom since my own daughters were grade schoolers – over 20 years ago.  Even then, I was there for school conferences, a rather controlled environment.  I had no sense of what it was like to be a teacher, trying to bring a room full of students to greater understanding of the subjects and skills that will shape their ability to succeed.  I do now.

Over the last several weeks, I have gotten to know the little boy’s teacher (I will call her Ms. F) and to see the conditions in which she must teach.  Keep in mind, this school is not considered a deprived or troubled school, but an example of the average school in our district – which by the way is considered one of the better ones in Florida.  The room is an open classroom.  Ms. F must teach 20 first graders in one corner of the open classroom, with 3 other classes going on in the other corners.  If a child is not an exceptionally focused child, it seems impossible for them to concentrate on their work properly.  I know that the 6 year old version of myself could not.

This week the teacher expressed her frustration in her inability to keep all 20 of her charges progressing at the rate needed for them to pass to second grade.  She was distraught that the little boy I tutor was falling further behind.  I assured her it was not her fault.  Indeed, I am in awe that she is able to keep the vast majority of the students learning and progressing.  I thought of the verse I quoted from this week’s Torah portion and realized that she is a malach trying to lead this room full of children to the Promised Land of education – the doorway to having any quality of life.

But what happened next blew me away.  The children had just come in from the playground and were having their snacks – which are supposed to come from home.  My student had no snack and said he was hungry.  Ms. F took a box of wheat thins from a shelf, a box she brought from her own pantry, and gave the boy a snack.  As I related this, in amazement to others during the course of this week, I learned that most teachers do this.  In fact, most teachers pay for school supplies the district will not get for their classrooms as well as provide snacks for children who have none.  These teachers are malachim in many more ways than one.  Not only do they work to educate children against the odds of bad facilities, too many students in the classroom, uncooperative parents who blame the teacher for every mishap – but try to provide where all other supposed participants in the process fail to provide.

Now for the part that makes me angry.  No profession is more disrespected than teachers.   I am sure Ms. F makes no more than 37 K per year.  How can we, as a society allow children’s education to wallow in such mediocrity?  Why are we not honoring and paying teachers who give so much of themselves to the students?  Just as the Torah tells us God’s name is placed within the angel leading the Israelites, I believe God’s name rests within each teacher as well.  If we do right by them, we will take a great step towards not failing our children.

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