When Life Hands Us A New Lesson Plan

As teachers, we put a great deal of planning into our lessons. We give a lot of thought to what we want to impart to our students, content-wise and values-wise. We want to make sure that we fill the class time with a variety of quality experiences and content for our students. But sometimes, no matter how much we planned– life hands us a new lesson plan, and we have to adjust accordingly.

Adjusting is hard, of course. No matter how many years people have been teaching, it takes some real time and thought to craft a great lesson. That investment can cause us to be a bit inflexible sometimes, and maybe unwilling to make changes to our lessons — but, valuable as that preparation is, good teaching is also about being flexible: Recognizing what our students need, even if that means throwing out our precious lesson.

This is important for Jewish educators. We have to be ready to shift focus from content to community when that’s what the situation calls for; especially when tragedy strikes, we have to be ready to respond to our students’ new needs, and let them know we are prepared to be there for them as they learn how to encounter the unthinkable.

Recently, there was a suicide here in San Antonio, Texas. A high school sophomore killed himself after being traumatized by relentless bullying. A few days later, I learned about an eighth grader from one of our Southern region’s Jewish camps, who also took her own life.

My communities, secular and Southern-and-Jewish, were both deeply shaken. So, too, was I. How could this have happened? How could these two young people have been so lost? How would this affect the communities in which they both lived? What would my students need in the wake of this awful news?

READ: Suicide in Jewish Tradition

That Sunday morning, I spent time in two different religious schools. One school approached the situation with a business-as-usual approach. The high schoolers had a guest speaker scheduled, so that’s what happened, just as planned. It was a great program, and it went forward despite the backdrop of recent sadness. At the other school, things were handled differently. Older students were gathered for an assembly, to talk and process the recent suicides in their world. No formal lesson took place, but important conversations did. Parents also hung around that morning. There was nothing scheduled for them, but they needed to talk to other parents.

Was one school doing the right thing, and the other making the wrong move? What’s the correct answer?

The truth is, there isn’t one. Or at least, there isn’t just one. Some students might need to stop their regularly scheduled plans and deal directly with the tragedy. Others might be better served by getting to have a “normal” morning of religious school, knowing that they can talk when and if they need to, at synagogue, home, or school.

After all, on the one hand, life goes on and sometimes we need to see that. On the other hand, at religious school we set out to be more than just an educational experience. We are charged with creating community for our students. Just as planning for our lessons is part of our jobs as teachers, it’s also our job to know when our students need something else from us. It’s tough to know when to shift gears and when to stay with your plan. Life is filled with tragedy these days, and if we cancelled class every time there was bad news, we would never have class. Sad, but true.

That’s why I think being tuned in to our specific students, in that specific moment, is so vital. Sometimes it really does come down to a gut reaction. It’s not easy, but this balance of community and content is the core of what Jewish education is all about. We need to value both.

So as a teacher, I will continue to plan and prepare hoping that my lessons will happen just as I designed them to and yet will be ready to toss my lesson aside if my students need something more from me. That’s what Jewish education should look like: Being prepared with a great lesson plan, and being ready to set it aside if life hands us and our students a more urgent one.

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