It’s a daunting world for the new teacher.
Timeworn lessons encounter 2019 students. Conventional textbooks and traditional teachings converge upon contemporary minds. Even when the textbooks themselves are up-to-date, suddenly, their entire mode of being – printed, 2-D, inert – is antiquated against the digital era.
The teacher faces the predictable classroom challenges, as well. How to engage 30-plus students at once, with all of their varying capabilities and strengths? How to connect with each child as an individual, while maintaining decorum as a whole? How to ensure that the eternal, invaluable lessons stand the test of time, when the written tests are over?
On the home front, a slow and steady crusade takes place, as well. Amidst the sharpened pencils and fresh notebooks lies the daily toil for parental success. Confidence, self-esteem, knowledge, social competence, emunah, organizational abilities…we want our children to have it all. Yet some days, it’s an effort just to keep everyone’s heads above the water.
With the start of the new school year comes the opportunity for new beginnings. As a principal for over 30 years, currently at the Hasten Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis and previously at the South Bend Hebrew Day School, and a mechaneches for over 40 years, Mrs. Miriam Gettinger knows more than a thing or two about starting the year off right. Mrs. Gettinger’s methods have been replicated in mosdos around the country, as this renowned menaheles has developed techniques that not only reach every child in the classroom, but ensure that the lessons reverberate long after the dismissal bell has rung.
For Mrs. Miriam Gettinger, success in both the school and home settings comes when you take the time to prepare, take the effort to connect…and ensure that you love the child even more than you love the topic.
How to Be a Star
“A star teacher, to me, is a teacher who is completely engaging and passionate in their teaching,” says the principal who has hired and overseen dozens of educators over the years. “A star teacher is a teacher who devotes as much preparation and thought to how they are going to present the lesson as they give to the content of the lesson.”
And with that introductory remark, we quickly jump into one of the core elements of Mrs. Gettinger’s teaching philosophy. A teacher cannot only put time and effort into the lesson topic, but must put equal time and effort into the presentation itself. This ensures more than readiness to face the classroom: this idea – planning the lesson presentation – is one of the key tips to ensure an engaging lesson.
“I don’t want my students to ever be ‘passive blobs with notebooks,’” shares Mrs. Gettinger animatedly. “The Gemara refers to students as ‘baalei trissin’ – warriors, actively engaged. When you see a man learning gemara, this is exactly how he learns: he’s moving his hands, he’s involved, he’s alive! This is how it has to be with all of chinuch.”
Even for a natural-born teacher, it takes advanced planning to achieve an engaging lesson.
“When I want a lesson to be engaging, I have to think about it: what story, what metaphor, what real-life application do I want to bring out here? I have to prepare these essential questions. For some teachers, this is much more intuitive than others, but even for those intuitive mechanchim, being intuitive without preparation can reduce teaching to drudgery.
“Teaching is an extremely demanding profession and the hachana is part of the avodas hakodesh.”
Practically speaking, Mrs. Gettinger doesn’t advocate for dedicated hours of planning on a nightly basis – as a veteran educator herself, the principal is realistic.
“You can think and plan while you’re washing dishes, while you’re taking a walk. It takes 15 minutes of mindful thought that can happen at various points.”
But those 15 minutes are invaluable in shaping and forming the lesson.
“Kids thrive on the innovative; it’s important to have chiddush. This is what keeps the lesson from devolving into passive blobs.”
Engagement can take different shapes. As one example, Mrs. Gettinger shares a case from her own 6th grade Historia classroom, where she asked the students: “Are Jews responsible, or do Jews have a role in creating anti-Semitism?”
The students were forced to ponder the question and respond, because their teacher told them all to stand up. Those who felt strongly that the answer was “no” were told to move to the left side of the classroom. Those who felt strongly that the answer was “yes” were to move to the right. Those on the fence, stay in the middle.
“Wherever you stand, be prepared to defend your choice.”
With a lesson like that, no one is staring into space.
“The definition of chinuch is dedication and preparation,” asserts Mrs. Gettinger.
Knowing Math is a Given
Clearly, as shown from above, the content is only one factor in the making of a successful teacher. For Mrs. Gettinger, this holds true not only for lesson preparation, but a step before that, as well. When interviewing a potential candidate for an available teaching position, this principal is thinking beyond the content.
“Let’s say I’m looking for a math teacher. If they tell me, ‘I know math very well’ – that, to me, is a given,” Mrs. Gettinger says. “As a starting point, of course, they must know and like their chosen topic well. But that’s not what I’m looking to hear at our interview.”
What does the interviewer want to hear? Passion for chinuch and a proficiency for working with children.
“I want to hear: ‘I’m flexible,’ ‘I’m patient,’ ‘I love children…’”
Teaching has much more to do with the relationship than with the dry topic alone.
“As part of the interview, I always ask the candidate to identify one weakness as it applies to teaching. More often than not, the answer is very telling. If they say that they’re not always careful about the way they speak to children or that they occasionally lose their temper, that is an enormous red flag. Even the most ‘qualified’ teacher needs to have derech eretz for their students. Every teacher is a role model and needs to see themselves as such and act that way.”
What would a “good” weakness be? “I have difficulty catering to weaker students,” “I have difficulty with enrichment students…,” she relates as two examples.
A candid answer, but one that reflects a lack in a classroom skill, rather than a personality difficulty. And there certainly can’t be any signs of lacking passion, for that is the most crucial ingredient of what makes a great teacher.
As a long-time mechaneches in a kiruv environment, Mrs. Gettinger notes that the sense of dinei nefashos is incredibly exciting to her; there’s an element of urgency that “gets her out of bed in the morning.” But, she notes, when it comes to kiruv kerovim, a teacher’s attitude must be the same.
“There is a sense of passion that must be there, and must be passed along to the students.”
She relates a personal example.
“I had the zechus to learn in BJJ as a seminary student many years ago, and the school was in its founding years. Our teachers were Rav Shamshon Rafael Weiss, Rav Nadav, the author of Shmiras Shabbos K’Hilchasa…premier rabbonim. One teacher was different, however – she was a holdover from when the school was an Israeli program, and she wasn’t a noteworthy ‘name’ like the others.” Mrs. Gettinger relates the story as if it happened yesterday. “This teacher taught me Neviim, and until today, I can quote you this Abarbanel and that meforash, because this woman taught with her whole lev.”
When there is passion – for the topic, for the students and for the responsibility – then there is chinuch.
Feeding the Partnership
If you’re looking to impress Mrs. Gettinger, don’t show her a lesson packed with chapters’ worth of information – unless you’re prepared to explain how the students can master it all. At the end of the day, notes the mechaneches, it’s never about how much you taught, but how much the students received.
“There has to be that partnership,” the principal explains.
Building the partnership starts at the beginning of the lesson, when the teacher provides clear “learning targets” for the day’s class.
“The teacher is like a GPS – they are pointing the way for the students. The student should clearly know, ‘This is what I am supposed to be taking out of today’s lesson; this is what I should be able to do.’”
Mrs. Gettinger explains that it’s also not about the teacher doing the heavy lifting: rather the teachers should think of themselves as the guides, and let the students do the driving. Throughout the lesson, the teacher should take opportunities to assess the classroom and see if the children are understanding the ideas. The principal notes that this is obviously easier said than done in a classroom with 30 students – which is why she will advocate for smaller class sizes – but it can be done, through proper planning put into presentation.
There is also the “exit ticket” method, which is used at the end of the lesson, that can give teachers a good idea of whether or not their lesson was learned.
“Exit tickets are very popular, but I have a twist on the idea,” explains Mrs. Gettinger. For those of us not in the field, the principal defines exit tickets: they are a short sentence or two that the students write at the end of the class, summing up the main idea that was taught. Mrs. Gettinger’s own take on the tickets is choosing one student per day to come share their “exit ticket thought” directly to the teacher, so the teacher can connect with each student personally at least once a month and see first-hand how well that particular student understood the lesson.
Students can also write their exit tickets on sticky notes, then place the note on a red light, yellow light or green light on the wall on the way out of the classroom. The red light indicates that they did not understand the day’s lesson, the yellow, that they have somewhat of a grasp, and the green that they have a clear understanding.
This method provides real-time feedback for the teacher of her lesson, as well as an assessment of each student’s competency.
“You can tell them to write their notes anonymously, because within a few weeks, you’ll know each one’s handwriting anyway,” shares Mrs. Gettinger with a smile.
In addition to target points at the beginning and exit tickets at the end, students must be evaluated throughout the lesson, stresses the educator, to ensure that they are being engaged the whole time.
“Place an imaginary extra desk at the front of your classroom,” the principal suggests, “and every day, picture a different student from your class sitting in it. Gear the lesson to that student. This will help ensure that you’re teaching to every different level sitting in your class.”
Memories are Not Created Equal
If the listen-take notes, study-take tests method of schooling is as familiar to you as it is to most of us, then we’ve all been victims of a schooling system that does not work to our mind’s best advantage.
There are multiple types of memory function, explains Mrs. Gettinger. Semantic, procedural, emotional, auditory…each of these represent a different way in which we imbibe information, and some are more effective than others at actually keeping that information in our heads.
The most ineffective way is semantic memory, in which a person typically forgets 85 percent of what they learned. Take a guess which way is the method typically taught in school, and if you said semantic, you’re unfortunately right.
“Semantic memory is a knowledge-based type of memory, which means that we learn the information through words alone,” Mrs. Gettinger explains. “This is the hardest type of memory to take from short-term to long-term, yet this is what most of school is about: the teacher speaks and the children write, then take a test.”
Excellent teachers will look to try a different way of incorporating information. Procedural memory, in which students learn by doing, is extremely effective in retaining information. Another worthy choice is automatic memory, where students learn songs or games that turn the information into a pattern, or a reflex, that they instinctively remember.
“Preschool morahs often use automatic memory,” Mrs. Gettinger points out, “and many of us remember our preschool songs for years. But unfortunately, these methods often fade out as children get older.”
The strongest memory retainer is emotional auditory memory, in which students hear something that also invokes an emotional reaction.
“If you’ve ever gotten a standing ovation for an accomplishment, you will never forget that for the rest of your life,” notes Mrs. Gettinger. “Similarly, if a child is ever rebuked by a teacher in public, chas v’shalom, that memory will also be deeply embedded.”
When a teacher can use the power of emotional auditory memory to drive home a lesson, they can harness the mind’s most powerful natural tool for retaining the information.
“An important goal of chinuch is not just to teach the lessons for now, but to have our students remember them for life.”
I am Anti-Sticker
Classroom management is one of the biggest anxieties of any new teacher, but this veteran educator’s take on classroom management goes hand in hand with her methods on lesson prep.
“You cannot teach effectively if you cannot control a classroom, nor can you teach effectively if you don’t engage the classroom.”
In other words, the two are two sides of the same coin. When the lessons are engaging, then the students in the classroom will be naturally channeled toward the lesson, and when the lessons are not engaging, then you will lose the students whether or not they are quietly sitting in their seats.
In Mrs. Gettinger’s schools, behavior is also addressed holistically through a social-emotional curriculum that is realistic about the challenges of today’s students.
“Especially in today’s dor, the level of anxieties and social-emotional baggage that our students have is of real significance. I believe that education is always about the whole child, so in our school, we look to address that by incorporating a curriculum for our teachers that addresses the social-emotional element.”
One such program that the principal recommends is called the “Responsive Child” and she teaches it to her entire staff, so that there is consistency in behavior messages schoolwide.
“Every classroom in the elementary school is using the same techniques for issues such as redirecting inappropriate behavior, setting positive rules, respecting people and property, moving safely from place to place and the like.”
Equally importantly, the rules are simple and clear-cut.
“The rules should be kept to a maximum of about four, and should be posted everywhere in the school.”
For the students, this helps tremendously in knowing what is expected of them and in keeping to the school’s standards of behavior. For teachers, the system is an incomparable boon, as well.
“New teachers can’t walk in cold without a classroom management system in place. With this school-wide method, we are acknowledging that each child is a whole person and the same things are expected of them, wherever they are in the building and whichever teacher they have.”
Mrs. Gettinger firmly believes that with easy-to-follow, consistent rules and logical explanations, the students become motivated to behave intrinsically, rather than extrinsically.
“I am anti-sticker,” she states.
The students learn to want to behave for the sake of behaving.
“And the teachers themselves are the best examples of intrinsic motivation that I know,” the principal laughs. “No one goes into teaching for the salary.”
Mrs. Gettinger touched upon a point that many wonder about today: the differences with today’s child, as compared to the students of years ago. In the digital age, is chinuch the same?
“Whether we accept it or not, whether we have technology in the home or not, there is a difference in the world today,” she asserts. “Today’s child is a visual learner.”
Two decades ago and more, Mrs. Gettinger explains, there were many different types of learners: audio, visual, a combination…In today’s world, all children have been programmed to learn visually. It is up to the teachers to acknowledge this reality and adapt to it.
“There is such an important distinction between the concept of ‘Torah u’mesorah’ and teaching to today’s student,” the principal makes sure to note. “Our mesorah is critical, but we have to make adjustments in the way that we present it to ensure that it reaches our students. If you can’t reach the student, you can’t teach the student.”
Being a child in the digital age means a shorter attention span, as well.
“Students can focus for their chronological age plus two. This means that if they are eight, then can be expected to focus for ten minutes at a time.”
When a teacher drones on for 45 minutes about the same topic, they are sure to have lost their eight-year-old students 35 minutes prior.
“Don’t fight today’s reality,” the principal recommends. “Channel it.”
Each generation has its challenges, she notes, and it’s up the parents and educators to learn how to address them effectively.
Many believe that emunah is one of those topics that has grown increasingly hard to convey to the next generation. What is the mechaneches’s advice for passing along specifically this crucial concept?
“Look at the whole picture and the whole child,” Mrs. Gettinger reiterates. “A teacher can integrate concepts of emunah into science, for example. When teaching kiddush hachodesh, look at the phases of the moon and point out the chachmah of the world.”
And aside from taking active opportunities to point it out, also welcome and encourage those times when the students raise the question.
“My general rule of thumb is that we can never squelch the asking. There cannot ever be something that is taboo or not asked. One of the soft skills that we must teach to our students is advocacy: learning how to ask something respectfully, while also knowing that they can and should ask. There’s no question that cannot be asked.”
On the Home Front
Before the school year begins, it’s not only teachers who prepare with trepidation. On the home front, parents also pack fresh bags with new crayons and old worries, as they recognize their child’s strengths and weaknesses and wonder how the new year will unfold.
What can parents do to best prepare their children?
Mrs. Gettinger’s advice for the home reflects her words of wisdom for the classroom.
“Always make time for each individual child. Carve out time for each child to share the best and worst parts of their day. In that way, parents have the opportunity to have their finger on the pulse of what the child has experienced, and they can help them modulate.”
A parent can also use the principal’s “holistic learning” approach to incorporate powerful lessons into their home life.
“Use family trips and vacations to go to places of niflaos haBorei; teach children to feel comfortable to ask any question; use family experiences to talk about Hashem.”
And as with the classroom, find the real-life application of any lesson, even the chore of doing homework.
“Homework, besides for its chazarah opportunities, provides the chance for children to learn time management, which is a skill that they’ll use for life,” the principal points out.
Lastly, invest in sticky notes. Just as sticky notes can be invaluable in providing feedback in the classroom, a sticky note can be a lifeline for a child that is treasured for years to come.
“Parents should include a note in their child’s backpack every day. Not just the first day of school, but every day after that, as well, parents should write a little note and slip it into their child’s bag. It could be anything: it could tell them I love you, it could tell them what’s for supper that night. A parent should know what’s important to their child and write it on that note.
“All parents are teachers,” Mrs. Gettinger sums up, “and all teachers are parents. We learn that the Bnei Aharon were Moshe’s children. I think the message for both ends needs to be that it’s always about two things: ‘Shivisi Hashem l’negdi samid’ and it’s about what is expedient for the child.”
When the parents look to create a partnership with the teacher and the teacher looks to partner with the parents, than that’s where chinuch is, shares the educator.
“And that’s where we must be.”
Always with passion, always with devotion and always with the child in focus.