Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
livredor

Teacher

Part of the reason I've not had much time for LJ recently has been that I'm very busy with work just now, and on top of that it was Pesach, and on top of that there was teaching. Teaching makes me very happy, so I'm going to talk about it.

The weekend before the festival was the big double bar mitzvah which was the culmination of a year's worth of bar mitzvah class. It was just fantastic, a really memorable experience. R Qassim-Birk was visiting from England for the weekend, and met the class for a discussion before the ceremony. She was impressed by how keen and involved my pupils are, which is three quarters because they are amazing people, but also because I created a context where they could get excited about Judaism.

We had a meal Friday night, which was not really anything to do with the bar mitzvah as such, but a chance for the Progressive community to meet together and learn with our visiting rabbi. R Qassim-Birk led a seasonal discussion about Pesach, (during the course of which I learnt the real story behind the orange custom, apparently it was originally to do with inclusion of gay people in Orthodox communities, and not at all some childish feminist gesture as it's usually reported). Anyway as part of this discussion we had trigger texts about asking questions, and somebody picked out to give to me a quote from Talmud about how you should ask questions if your teacher is knowledgeable and you think they will know the answer, but not humiliate an ignorant teacher with questions they can't manage. It was very sweet, as a compliment on how I'm definitely in the knowledgeable category!

The ceremony itself went very well. Not absolutely without a hitch, but there was nothing major. We managed very well in the main sanctuary of the great synagogue, creating an intimate atmosphere in spite of the intimidating space. And it was perfectly obvious to everybody that the two bar mitzvah students fully understood the roles they were taking in the service. I made them revive the Mishnaic tradition of the parents reciting a blessing to thank God for releasing them from responsibility for their children's sins, and combined this with the Progressive custom of having the parents symbolically pass a sefer Torah to their offspring. And that made for a lovely ceremony, and we came up with ways for all the siblings and parents to be involved.

The party afterwards was lovely too. The MC (they call him a toastmaster in Swedish, using the English word) asked me to make a short speech, introducing me with the quote Make yourself a teacher, which was really touching. I spoke about how well D and E had worked together, with D being loud and extrovert and always having ideas about everything, and E being really quiet but incredibly conscientious and thoughtful. They're an amazing pair; they've been close friends since babyhood. Oh, and they followed a custom from the US which I hadn't come across before, of asking various guests to light candles so that they could thank people who had contributed to the big day. They did the whole thing in verse, not always very good verse, but it was pretty impressive that they made the effort! And there was lots of dancing, mostly a sort of cross between a hora and a conga line, and a little bit of chair dancing because people think that's a cute Jewish thing to do and don't realize that it's actually meant for weddings.

This year's teaching has been such a rewarding experience, just amazing. The class were expected to do some social action project as part of the preparation for their bar mitzvahs, and they've come up with some amazing stuff. The American kid has arranged for a Holocaust survivor to come and speak to his class at school; M and E have been visiting old people's homes, with E putting together a whole project about the various activities she helped arrange; D has been helping to teach the mostly secular American teenagers (who are almost all older than him) a little bit more about Judaism; and R is going to help me run the service in a couple of weeks, and is doing lots of background study towards that. And they've all come up with thoughtful comments about their Torah portions. I was particularly impressed with E's ideas; she and D were stuck with the portion about ceremonies to purify people who have recovered from leprosy, which is hardly inspiring, and she made a connection between the birds sacrificed in the Torah text with animals that are used in experiments and to make medicines, and between the blood in the ceremony and giving blood for transfusions. And everybody has made tangible improvements in their level of Hebrew, and we've had some really good discussions about what it means to be an adult and a Progressive Jew.

I've also been doing some real professional teaching at long last. A couple of lectures, which I left too late to prepare as well as I should have done, but they went well anyway. And then the really fun part, running three sessions of so-called "dry labs". This is a scheme that my boss came up with, where they assign a real scientific problem (in this case how the estrogen receptor regulates genes), and have to discuss what experiments they would do to study it. They do three actual lab practicals covering the three experiments which are practical for undergraduates to reproduce, and the other six are done on a dry, ie hypothetical, basis. It was really marvellous to teach, because you're actually teaching science, not just facts about science. The students were visibly excited about getting to apply their knowledge rather than just regurgitating, though a few of them were a little discouraged to realize how much they don't know. They sometimes lapsed into Swedish when the discussion got really intricate, so I'm proud that I was able to cope with that.

One of the students gave the strong impression of having an entirely innocent crush on me, really anxious for my approval, and he pestered me for more opportunities for that kind of freeform discussion to help him understand the lecture material. I agreed to arrange an impromptu tutorial for him, though in retrospect I'm not convinced that was a good idea. For one thing time constraints meant neither of us really prepared the material, which isn't the most effective way to run a tutorial, and I think I pitched it a bit too advanced. Also, although my first instinct was, yay, here's a keen student, it might not actually be sensible to encourage that kind of teacher's pet dynamic. I realized far too late that he's close enough to my age that the innocent interpretation might not be entirely self-evident. I hate having to worry about things like that, but being too naive would be worse, I think.

Oh, and as one of the course leaders I've been asked to set exam questions for the assessment next week (it's all modular, so they have exams straight after the lecture series). This feels like a major milestone on the way to being grown up, though I suppose nearly 30 is a bit too old to be surprised when people treat me like an adult!

I love teaching so much, and I'm more and more thinking that I need to find a job where I get paid to teach, instead of doing odd bits of volunteering that is a distraction from my main job, even though I get far more out of it than what I'm supposed to be doing.
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