Reasonable Risks

Reasonable risk seems like an oxymoron. I checked a list of examples to see if it appeared, beside “open secret” or “small crowd.” I couldn’t find it, so I decided to coin the phrase yesterday, on the first day of school.

I spent the summer thinking about how to discuss risk-taking with teenagers. While teens generally have a reputation for taking unreasonable risks, my experience in teaching them is that many are anxious or risk-averse in a classroom setting. I empathize with these students, because I was a low risk-taker throughout elementary, middle and high school. I never raised my hand in class unless I was absolutely certain I knew the right answer. Often unsure of myself, I tried to hide from the teacher’s line of vision and spent hours at school afraid I’d be “called on.”

I wonder if High School Me would recognize High School Teacher Me.

Now I embrace risk-taking in the classroom, pushing myself and my students to grow and learn by entertaining a new perspective, writing a personal narrative in the voice of a biblical figure, expressing an idea through message-driven art and sharing it in an artist statement. Facing a new group of ninth graders, I encourage them to engage with the Torah and each other, to ask questions and to answer them fearlessly.

I reassure my students: these are reasonable risks in a safe learning environment. I say what I wish my teachers had said to me in high school.

Of course, saying it isn’t enough. So, on the first day of school, I devote more than half of our class time to the Marshmallow Challenge. During the debrief, I ask them to tell me what contributed to their success. We will revisit the lessons of the Marshmallow Challenge–work and play together to discover new ideas, challenge assumptions, be willing to start over if something isn’t working–time and again throughout the semester.  I remind myself to model reasonable risk-taking as a teacher and as a lifelong learner.

This time last year, I took what seemed at the time like some big risks: returning to the classroom after seven years of working from home, developing a curriculum almost from scratch, and juggling part-time work with full-time parenting. Compared to this year, as I return to full-time work and step into a senior leadership role in the school, last year’s risks seem quite reasonable.

Still, with all the new challenges I’ve undertaken, I am unafraid of failure. Instead, I’m ready to spend the coming year working and playing with students and colleagues to discover new ideas, challenging assumptions, and starting over if something isn’t working. I welcome each risk and potential mistake as an opportunity to learn.



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