Polishing Our Diamonds
by Daniel R. Weiss
Daniel R. Weiss is the Head of School at Bornblum Jewish Community School in Memphis, Tennessee.
A teacher came to the Chazon Ish (Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, who lived from 1878-1953) to ask his advice about changing professions. The teacher wanted to become a diamond polisher. “Aren’t you already a diamond polisher?” asked the Chazon Ish. He is correct, but our role as educators is not simply to polish diamonds, it is also to mine them, to find the diamonds in the rough and to expose them, polish them, and display their beauty.
Each one of our students is full of potential, waiting to be discovered, waiting to be polished. In his book, Teaching Jewishly, Joel Lurie Grishaver highlights four main ideas; (1) Teachers are supposed to be angels, (2) Teaching as a relationship, (3) Greeting as the first step in teaching, and (4) Building respect for students. Grishaver quotes, Shivti b’Bet ha-Shem, by stating that “a teacher must be interested in more than the subject matter. A teacher should also be interested in the student’s welfare. A teacher should help students with personal problems.”
Each of these ideas drew me towards Bornblum, as it is a school in which there is value in the relationship that our teachers have not only with their students, but with their students’ families. At Bornblum, communication and relationship building are key. By being open to speak with one another, with the purpose of polishing diamonds, we create a storehouse of riches not only for the Memphis Jewish community but for the entire Jewish world.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once taught, “Everything depends on the person who stands at the front of the classroom. The teacher isn’t an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained… What we need, more than anything else, isn’t text books, but rather text people. It is the personality of the teachers which is the text that students read – the text that they’ll never forget.”
Many of us can reflect fondly on our years as a student in an elementary or middle school classroom. We might recall who we sat near us, or a project that we did. But it is the teacher that we had, who stays with us today. The relationships that we continue to build with those who teach us are what we take from year to year and they are what help us to become the people that we are. A successful educational model therefore includes both textual learning opportunities as well as experiential learning opportunities. It cannot simply be a “do as I say,” there must be “do as I do.” Students must feel inspired to put their learning to good use.
I believe in educating children to be active members of the Jewish community, as well as productive members of world community. Students should not only be literate in Hebrew but literate in being Jewish. We teach students not only how to lead a prayer service, but to know how and why we pray. We encourage students to do more than wonder “what if”; we help them seek out the answers to questions and discover how those answers might impact their lives today and tomorrow. We show students how general studies and Jewish studies work together to make us well rounded individuals and how skills learned in Jewish studies classes inform and strengthen our understanding of general studies, just as our understanding of secular studies should impact our appreciation of our Jewish studies.
Though these are our goals, to succeed in polishing our diamonds, we also must recognize that each student learns differently. Recognizing these differences compels our teachers to make education accessible to everyone. I believe that in a class of 15 students, there is one curriculum, but it is taught in 15 different ways. Teachers who adapt to the way that students learn produce successful learners. My goal as an educator is to make learning accessible; to find ways for all students to feel successful as learners; and for all students and staff and families to build a stronger community.
I am here to make a lasting impact on my students, on my staff, and on my community. I believe in the importance of being a mentor, a friend and a teacher, not simply for the year(s) that I have the student in my classroom or in my school, but for the rest of their lives. Pirke Avot (Ethics of our Sages) teaches, Aseh Lecha Rav, Ukneh Lecha Chaver, make for yourself a teacher and acquire a friend. I am an educator because of those teachers who inspired me to do more by recognizing that I, like all students, am a gem that needs polishing. Together, we can be the next link in the chain and the students at Bornblum are the diamonds that we polish.