Things to Stand By

1.6          Joshua ben Perahya and Nittai, of Arbel, received the tradition from them.

Joshua ben Perahyah taught:

Select a master-teacher for yourself;
Acquire a colleague for study;
When you assess people, tip the balance in their favor.

A day late. I’ve been hours late before, and I’m sure I’ll be hours late again, but being a day late upsets me. What’s most upsetting specifically is that, although earlier in the day I had recalled it was a Saturday, by the time the end of the day had arrived, I had forgotten, and only remembered before I had gone to bed. It felt like I had failed myself in some way, but I knew I only had two choices at that point: I could give up entirely, or I could accept that I make mistakes and just try to fix that. So that’s what I did. I gave myself time to sleep and now I’m making up for it.

I think my post on Thursday, about being thankful for my teachers, serves as good a segue into this week’s teaching as any. But then, what defines a master-teacher? And in the realm of colleges where you get what teacher you get and can hardly select them at all, how are you supposed to choose a master-teacher then?

I think—as I feel I often do—that it comes down to perspective. In the days of the Sages whose wisdom we now read, chances are colleges hadn’t become what they are today and that you could literally select a master-teacher to approach for an apprenticeship in any skill that you wished to acquire. Today, however, we get assigned our teachers, all the way from pre-school where parents place us in classes, through high school where school districts decide our faculty, to college where instructor availability and class schedules decide this for us. So since we can no longer “select” our teachers, how are we supposed to find the right ones for us?

I have two ideas for this part of the teaching.

The first goes back to what I said earlier, that it comes down to perspective. To select something is to choose something. To select a master-teacher for ourselves is to make that person a master-teacher to us. Two weeks ago when we read to “sit eagerly at [the scholars’] feet and drink thirstily of their words (1.4)” I mentioned making ourselves open to learning, and here I’m saying we need to make ourselves open to teachers. Especially in college where you’ll only have a teacher for a few months before not having to see them again at all, no matter how open we are to learning, if we aren’t open to our teachers, then we won’t learn anything.

An example: Before my first calculus class, I heard a lot of bad things about my teacher. He was monotone, he was unforgiving, he was strict. And largely, he was. But whereas other people struggled with his teaching, I opened myself up to his unique style and chose to play things his way. I looked for subtle changes in his tone that made his teaching seem a little more three-dimensional; I paid close attention to his examples so I would know exactly how to do them on my own; and I didn’t hesitate to ask questions, no matter how belittling he sometimes sounded when answering them (which was a rarity, I found, although some people disagreed with me). I chose to make him my master-teacher. I didn’t stop at being open to the material (making him a teacher); I continued opening myself until I was open to his teaching it to me (making him a master).

Teaching styles vary tremendously. I’ve never seen two teachers who teach the exact same way. And in only two semesters, I’ve had a share of less-than-great teachers already. And yet, my dedication to learning has allowed me to maintain a 4.0 GPA, and my openness to looking past people’s faults and learning from them no matter what has helped me to reach that goal.

Of course, I did say I had two ideas for this part. The second is actually selecting—and here I mean selecting opportunities. We don’t usually think of teachers as opportunities, but opportunities can teach us so much more than living, standing, breathing teachers can sometimes. We can choose to be a part of programs that help build leadership skills or study skills, and we can choose to join club councils and become group officers and take the opportunities for growth and learning that are presented to us. Sometimes this is scarier than simply opening up to a person’s style of teaching, but with greater risks, especially here, comes greater rewards.

“Acquire a colleague for study.” When I typed that, I typo’d and wrote “college” instead. And I thought, that was an honest mistake, and then I thought, that was a fitting mistake. Throughout school and once we reach college especially, we always have the option studying on our own. In college, when every class has new students, most of whom you’re not likely to know, it’s really easy to study alone. Being homeschooled, I’ve gotten really good at studying alone.

But when we study together, something special happens. When we’re confused and our study partners explain something, we learn it better; and when they’re confused and we explain something to them, we’re learning it better, too. As we learn from each other by studying together, we’re not only building our knowledge base, we’re building new friendships.

I’ve learned: Networking is a good thing. We often hear the saying “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and although I think what you know is still important, who you know can be equally as necessary. In college, even stranger things happen when we network: Not only do we build a web of associates that can help us in the classes we’re taking, they can help us by selling us their old books, or by buying ours. We share information about events to go to, about job opportunities and resources we didn’t know about, and relax in each other’s friendship. Connect enough people, and you’ve got a system as delicate as the blood in our veins, and just as awe-some when seen from a distance. Networking is a good thing. It’s why there’s Facebook.

Being open to learning from teachers is important. And studying with others is important, too. But where in all of this does judging others fit in? Where in this are we assessing people?

Another example: Psychology. My five-week, three credit course began Thursday (and studying for my first test on Tuesday is part of the reason why I forgot to write this yesterday). And I like my teacher. He’s soft-spoken, but very wise, and very informative. A true master-teacher, and I don’t have to do a thing to make him that, either. One of the things he said that excited me the most was that he’s going to teach us things we can use. Especially in psychology, that is exciting. What’s even more exciting: in only two days, I’ve already learned a lot.

One thing: He said we often forgive ourselves for our shortcomings (I didn’t have internet, I could say, or I was studying, so it’s alright I’m late), but we don’t extend that same courtesy to others (he was late! I came here on Saturday to read the new post, but it wasn’t there!), because we forget that other people are people, too, that they share them same extenuating circumstances that we do. Quite clearly, then, when we assess people, we should tip the scale in their favor—and hope, when it comes around to us, that they’ll give us the same second thought.

To tie this all together, I want to come back to teachers and talk about them for a bit more. When we see our teachers in front of us at the head of the classroom, we’re critical of them. They’re getting paid to be here; and we’re paying to be here. We should be critical of them. But when we hear former students complain about them, or when we aren’t exactly pleased by their first day of the semester, we have to remember that even though they’re our teachers, they’re still human just like we are and are still going through the same things we are. It’s easy to get annoyed when your English teacher cancels class for personal reasons, or when your public speaking teacher comes in late and frazzled, but we often easily forget when we’ve had to cancel things for our own personal reasons, or when we’ve stumbled in somewhere feeling late and frazzled.

So at the start of the day, or even at the end, when you meet someone new, or when you see your teacher at the head of the class, do yourself a favor and tip the balance in theirs.

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