Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Tue 9/20/2005 1:43 AM
Random Thought: Leviticus 25:35

I was sitting in synagogue last Saturday. I really didn't want to be there. I wanted to be working on the renovation of my master bedroom. But, we have Saturday services only once a month, and for the sake of supporting our small congregation and making sure the rabbi had a minyan (quorum), and at the nudging of my Susan, she and I went. As I was lazing around in the pew, not really being into it, thinking about how I could be using my time more productively stuccoing the bedroom walls, the rabbi asked us to go to a page prayer book. We had never read that particular prayer before. I matter-of-factly turned the pages in the prayer book. The prayer was about Maimonides' "Ladder of Tzedaka." "Tzsdaka" is often translated as "charity," but in the Jewish tradition, the word "tzedaka" doesn't mean charity in the normal sense of the word. It really means "justice," that is, it is an obligation to do rightly with your fellow persons. The lowest of the eight rungs on Maimonides' ladder is what we call giving when you don't really want to--something like me being in synagogue this day and what too many of us academics do in the classroom. But, it was the eighth and highest rung on the ladder that hit me square between the eyes and penetrated deep into by soul. The greatest tzedaka, said Maimonides, is to give in such a way that you strengthen a needy person until he or she no longer needs and can stand independent and self-sufficient. It is a requirement based on Leviticus 25:35 which reads, "You shall strengthen the stranger and the dweller in your midst and live with him." Its cornerstone is to fulfill this obligation while respecting the individual and preserving his or her dignity. Suddenly, I saw the word "teaching" replacing "tsedaka." I straightened up and I thought to myself, "That's what makes teaching a sacred striving. It's on the highest rung of tzedaka. What makes it itself a state of grace is when, without self-righteousness, arrogance or a haughtiness, without derision, scorn, or denigration, without reluctance, begrudging, or moaning, but with kindness and love and compassion, you engage with each student, and help the student help him/herself become empowered, free, and self-reliant. It's that "teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime" thing. I've not been able to think about much else since. Sometimes you don't ask.

Teaching and learning is tricky because it doesn't merely involve the matter-of-fact transmission of information. It involves people both as teachers and learners. And, people are complicated. There's nothing simple about people however we academics try to convince ourselves otherwise. There's something about teaching that makes so many academics nervous, and I don't think it's all about being trained as future scholars and not being trained as future classroom teachers, although that's part of it. I don't think it is all about the need to become a learner of the learning processes of human learning and the reluctance to see the need and to find the time to become one, although that, too, is part of it. I don't think it's all about the need to change who they are and what they do, although that is also a part of it. I don't think it's all about the second class status teaching actually holds on our campuses, although that also is part of it. I don't think it's all about being in the classroom while your heart is in an archive or laboratory researching, or in your office writing, and that is part of it as well. Maybe it has something more to do with the struggle of finding ways of doing good, being a good person, and having the good life. Maybe the solution to that struggle is not to be a better lecturer or tester or discussion leader or grader; maybe the solution is not found in some method, technique, or technology. Maybe the solution is to be a more aware person, a more empathetic person, and a more caring person of yourself and others.

So what is teaching all about if not solely about information transmission and reception? Well, if you use Leviticus and Maimonides as a guide to find your way through the pedagogical maze of lectures, group work, tests, scores, accountability, assessment, curriculum, degrees and so on, it's pure and simple; it's about the intention to have a purpose higher than merely offering the alms, begrudgingly or otherwise, of what the jargon calls "covering the material" or "mastery of a subject." Intention, what we plan on living for and what we plan on doing to live, where we'll put our time and energy, what we decide is sacred, will determine what and how we will be and do today, tomorrow, next week, the coming months and years. And, according to Maimonides, what should we strive for, what should our intentions be? That, too, is simple, but challenging: be generous; be giving; and be empowering. Sums up what teaching should be, doesn't it. Generosity is about crying each day for each student rather than crying only about that grant, conference paper, book, appointment, promotion, etc. Giving is about placing our importance second to the needs of a student; it's about caring about people rather than about position or promotion or reputation; it's about opening ourselves to others/ worlds. Empowerment is relinquishing "this is what I want" or "be quiet and just do as I say" or "or else" fearful and often manipulative control.

There is a power in these three virtues. You're never saddened by being generous; you're never poorer by giving; and, you're never weakened by empowering. They're a daily reaching out to benefit both each student and each of us. These three virtues should color every relationship every day both in the classroom and campus; they should touch every moral and ethical virtue; they should grease our daily living. How do we become better teachers? How do we become better people? The answer is really simple but challenging: by helping others help themselves, by respecting them, by serving them, by affording them their dignity, by stripping them of a dependency on others, by helping them tap their own imagination and creativity, by having them take their own risks, by allowing them to make their own mistakes without penalty, by relinquishing control, by instilling in them confidence in their own ability, by helping them rewrite their own negative script by being positive, by replacing their praise deficit with a praise surplus, by helping them see in themselves what you see, by helping them find their own solutions to their dilemmas, by helping them stop walking the way fear makes them move, by helping them start walking the way courage makes them move, by helping them to care about themselves and others, and by being a source of strength to them.

The more generous, giving, and empowering we are, the better the students live, and the better we live. It's the secret of living a wonderful life and having a fabulous career. These virtues will place bright spots before your heart and eyes, and you'll nurture them until they explode into wondrous novae; you'll have endless, fatigue-defying energy from which to draw; you'll respond to the less than perfect students with positive, life-affirming love. And, you'll feel that "helper's high."

There's a special joy in helping a student you don't find in publishing a book or giving a conference paper or receiving a grant. I once told a friend of mine that our sense of self-worth is nourished when we engage in acts of caring, in those little daily acts of kindness. As we are compassionate for others, we tend to add value and meaning to our lives. We all feel that "feel good feeling" helper's high when we help a student help him/herself. Once having soared, I assure you, you won't succumb to landing in the grips of a bog of self-doubt and pessimism. We're not different from students. The less self-doubt we have, the less prone we are to fear, self-depreciation, and discouragement. And the less we allow these eclipses to blot out our light, the more we feel exhilaration, the more our convictions are strengthened, the more courageous we are, the more we are emotional secure; it builds our inner strength, and floods us with a sense of being a "good and faithful servant."

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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