Is Your Rabbi an Excellent Teacher?

Posted on: March 16th, 2009 by Hayim Herring

Did you know that most rabbis have little formal training in education?  One of the most pervasive aspects of the rabbi’s job is teaching, but aside from a required course in education, most rabbis learn how to teach on-the-job. Imagine teaching a group of preschoolers in the morning, seniors at lunchtime and middle-school aged children in the late afternoon and teens in the evening. That’s not an unusual schedule for a congregational rabbi.

I’ve personally witnessed rabbis inflict painful learning experiences on congregants (and I admit, I did in my younger days!)  One morning, I watched a rabbi interact with preschool age children using words and concepts that were appropriate for older teens. Later that evening, I heard another rabbi speak to adults as if they were children.

In a book of Jewish ethics (Pirkei Avot 1:4), rabbinical students are instructed to sit at the feet of their teachers and “drink their words” up. The image is hierarchical, with students sitting on the ground and their teachers sitting or standing above them, in a privileged position because of their learning. And after 5-6 years of most rabbinical schools experience, I wonder if that’s the image that some rabbis carry around in their heads when they are teaching: I (rabbi) am up over you because I’ve got the knowledge; you (congregant) are beneath me because you don’t.

Some rabbis intuitively begin to understand that different strategies and approaches are needed depending upon the developmental stages of their audience. But, even when rabbis become good educators, many have the potential to become outstanding ones with just a little training and mentoring.

Rabbis: what “aha” moments made you realize that there were better ways to teach and what did you do about them? Others who aren’t rabbis—what suggestions do you have to help rabbis become more impactful teachers?

Thanks in advance for your responses!

Rabbi Hayim Herring

Image from Flickr: .:Axle:.

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