Friday, March 28, 2014

You Can't Have Your Cake and Smicha Too

A young teacher (YT) is interviewing with an assistant principal (AP) for a job teaching Tanach:
AP: Tell me, what do you believe are some goals of Jewish education?
YT: Well, there are a number of ideas that drive my teaching. First of all....
AP: Actually, forget that. Answer me this: A woman living in Florida loses a parent who lives in New York. The parent is being buried in Israel and the daughter in Florida can’t make it to the Holy Land. Oh, and this woman is adopted. Does she sit shiva and if so, when does she start?

I hope this interview scenario seems absurd to most people. After all, what does answering a question about aveilut have to do with being able to teach? Yet, this analogy is a somewhat-accurate depiction of what goes on in our schools. Most males who teach Limmudei Kodesh in Orthodox Jewish schools are trained Rabbis, educated in fields and methods that have little to do with formal Jewish education. It is almost as if this is required. Yes, many Jewish educators are also trained educators with Masters degrees, but is learning for Smicha really the best use of time for a future m’chanech?

To be sure, Smicha can be valuable for a Jewish educator. A teacher ideally should feel confident and connected to their field, not simply familiar with the material he or she has to teach. Receiving Smicha and the resulting authority to decide (certain) halachic questions definitely goes a long way to creating this sentiment for the Musmach. Additionally, there is something nice about a shul rabbi or assistant who is also trained as an educator and teaches in the local school.

Even after taking all of this into account, I still cannot see the argument to encourage Jewish educators to study for Smicha. Imagine if all that time spent studying was divided among more relevant pursuits. Imagine a future educator spending three years studying Tanach, Gemara methodology, Jewish history, relevant ancient history, archaeology, and geography. This same educator might also choose to spend some of this freed-up time getting experience in a classroom and preparing for his or her career. All of this is should be more important to a Jewish educator than the halachot of basar b’chalav.

Although all of this seems obvious (at least to me), the opposite seems to be promoted by our community in general, at least passively. It is basically expected that a male Jewish educator is also a “rabbi.” Our post high-school institutions are bifurcated; the Torah curricula operate with one set of goals while the graduate institutions operate with another. How great would it be for Yeshiva students with an interest in education to start learning relevant material in an organized and directed manner right away? Does anyone really think this is a bad idea? You still want to grant the title “rabbi?” Fine. Have a Smicha program for educators. They can take tests on more pertinent material instead.

Chinuch is not a career for those who want to keep learning. Nor is the purpose of Jewish day schools to provide day jobs for local Rabbis. Jewish education is crucial to our continuity as a people, and should therefore be treated with the utmost seriousness. This means future educators should be learning with one goal first and foremost: how to be the best teachers they can be. You have a question about this? Ask your local Orthodox rabbi.

(Originally Published in the Jewish Link of Bergen County


The Burack's said...

I'm guessing the majority of musmachim are planning on being mechanchim and not rabbonus, and you are correct, they don't seem to have a place to learn the actual skills they need. People want there kids to have a rebbi and not a "Mr." so smicha will continue, but I agree there should be a smicha tract for mechanchim and that should include skills necessary.

The truth though that the real skills in chinuch, I presume, are like in any other industry - what you learn in school will never really prepare you for life outside school. Right out of school no accountant is ready to sign a tax return or an audit, that takes years of practice, training etc. I wonder to what lengths schools are going to give the actual skills, not "mentor programs" or twice yearly workshops.

Yair Daar said...

You are correct about teaching skills. There should be a lot more practice and a lot less theory when it comes to preparing teachers. Currently, the educational world is moving more towards including "creativity" in the definition of learning - it's not what you know, but what you do with what you know. You would hope that as educational theory changes, so does the process of preparing teachers.

Regarding people wanting a "Rebbe" and not a "Mister" you are correct as well. It is unfortunate that this concern has such an impact on teaching. Also, what about women? Why are we okay with them not having an official title? (Insert overused MaHarat joke here)

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the reason why we want Rabbi and not mister is the same reason we want doctor and not mister. An ideal teacher not only has teaching skills but a mastery in his field. While semicha does not necessarily mean you're a baki in Shas and poskim it does mean you put years into your learning. Semicha can be geared towards classroom preparation but must also include a certain degree of general scholarship.

Yair Daar said...

That's a fair point; content mastery is significant for many reasons (one of which I mentioned in the article). It's a question of what the "field" is.

In terms of the content, I wouldn't consider a Gemara teacher's field "Torah" the same way I wouldn't call a Math teacher's field "knowledge." Learning Yoreh De'ah etc... is not really part of the relevant field content-wise. That's why it would be great to see a smicha program that focused on more relevant content.

Secondly, teachers are also in the field of "teaching." There is a lot to learn about current teaching methods and practices, which are more directly related to making someone a better m'chanech.

I would also add that Smicha is not a great indicator of whether someone has general scholarship. There are plenty of people I know whose scholarship is way beyond many of those who have smicha. For many, a large part of smicha is memorizing notes for tests.

To turn the questions back to you:

1) Why is it that general scholarship is important?

2) How would you define the
level of general scholarship that someone should need so that we are comfortable with them teaching in a Jewish school?

(I ask the first question not to challenge the validity of your claim, but b/c the answer to #2 is dependent on the answer to #1)