This Chanukah blog series is dedicated to sharing about the moments that sparked the careers of educators and leaders in Jewish day school education. Today, we share an educator’s perspective, written by Mindy Schiller, who teaches History and Humanities as well as serving as Marketing Director at Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School.
When I Chose Teaching
By Mindy Schiller
Teacher, Akiba Schechter Jewish Day School, Chicago, IL
One day my best friend declared: “Maybe you don’t have to be passionate about teaching to be good at it.” I looked at her in shock, and all I could think of was the three hours of meetings I had that week trying to find creative solutions for a student in my class. This student made me question my competence in a hundred different ways. Yet, when I watched him the previous week when he sat down next to a 1st grader and read a book with him, I had to leave the room so I wouldn’t cry. How could I explain to my friend that in moments like these—the ones where my ego gets bludgeoned and the ones where I’m tempted to wrap my arms around my student—it’s passion that carries me through to the other end?
It was in a high school English class that I first realized what it meant to bring passion to the classroom.
The teacher was Mrs. Rosenwald (z”l), an amazing, frizzy, white-haired creature with arthritic hands, a screechy voice, and piercing cornflower blue eyes. Sitting in a circle with us in her classroom, she would continuously shock us: “Elana, stop hiding from the discussion by taking notes. If you hide away in that notebook instead of having an opinion, then you’re no better than a turnip!” She was the one who taught me to take students more seriously than they take themselves. In the middle of reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis, for instance, she turned to one boy and asked, “Jon, is your relationship with your Dad different from Gregor Samsa’s with his?” And we found out, painfully, that it wasn’t. It was an admission that could only come because of the complete vulnerability and safety of the cocoon Mrs. Rosenwald had created in her classroom. We left the room transformed each day, eager—and a bit scared—to explore the world and ourselves.
Every day, when I sit down in a circle with my 7th/8th grade Humanities students, I think about Mrs. Rosenwald and wonder if she’s proud of me.
Even as a student in Mrs. Rosenwald’s class, I knew I would be a teacher one day. College seemed pro-forma, something I had to complete before I could enter the classroom. So, naturally, afraid that I had chosen my “beshert” too soon, I detoured for three years at a newspaper to see if I might like that better.
I didn’t. I enjoyed writing, of course, and I loved covering Jewish education. I got to see my name in print and felt the kind of ego-stroking that teachers never feel. But I always knew, at the back of my mind, that even the busiest press day at the newspaper was so much easier—and so much more fleeting—than teaching.
One day, covering a PEJE conference on recruitment and admissions, I listened to the famous Rheau Stakely (a”h) explain how to make people believe in Jewish education. I watched people around me furiously taking notes and thought, suddenly: I’m done “covering” Jewish education. I was stuck on the wrong side of the playing field. I wanted to be in the trenches, not in the bleachers.
A few months later, I started teaching.
Teaching is a blessing and a curse. Even now, having taught for almost 10 years, I still have nightmares every August. The details of the dream are different—the scenery, the building, the students, the context. But the theme is always the same: It’s the first day of school, and I’m not prepared. Because teaching is the kind of profession where if you don’t put in your blood and sweat and tears, it shows. If you don’t love it, if you don’t feel it in your bones and see it in your dreams, then it’s not for you.
I feel teaching in my soul, and I thank God every day that I do. In spite of the fact that it’s harder than any press day, it’s also the most rewarding and soul-nourishing thing I could do. Given the choice, I would choose it again — and again and again.