The Class I Almost Couldn’t Teach

Even experienced educators can get intimidated by the "I" word.

I recently saw a Facebook question asking people to name topics they could teach about for one hour, with no prior preparation. It’s a fascinating question. I thought about it, and was proud about the variety of topics I could list. My pride was quickly tempered as I realized how much longer the list of “subjects I couldn’t tackle” would be.

As teachers, we tend to gravitate towards teaching the topics that we know best. Sometimes, though, we get asked to teach something new. This can leave a teacher feeling completely out of their comfort zone and vulnerable.

Many religious school teachers take this risk each week, as they take on topics that they may be learning just a week or two ahead of their students. With kids, staying a step or two ahead of them can still position you as the expert, and it’s also powerful for the teacher to learn alongside the students. But what about when you’re teaching adult learners?

I have been teaching a monthly adult education class at Temple Beth El in San Antonio, Texas, for three years now. Each year the adult education committee chooses a theme, and all of the sessions offered fall under the assigned theme. My first year the theme was Jewish Ethics. Easy-breezy! A broad topic that I could unpack in a variety of ways. The second year the theme was God. A little tougher; while I had studied a lot about God, I hadn’t spent much recent time informing my own thoughts about God (let alone guiding others through that maze). I was ready to tackle the topic, though, and ended up feeling spiritually enriched at the end of the year.

This year, the topic is Israel.

Uh-oh. “The I Word.”

It’s not that I’m not interested in Israel. I also have a decent knowledge of Israel and its history; I lived there for a year, after all. But the topic of Israel is a pretty heated one within the Jewish community (not to mention the rest of the world). There are so many components that I just don’t know enough about. It’s intimidating. The more I didn’t know, the more I let the gap grow and the more I felt uncomfortable– like maybe I was simply unqualified to teach the class this year.

But then I met with the rabbi. We brainstormed how I could break up the monthly sessions. I felt slightly less terrified, because at least some of the subjects were within my comfort zone.

Then the brochure with all of the adult ed offerings went out to the congregation, including my sessions. One of my closest friends read the list and said “YOU are teaching the Israel stuff?!”

Oy.

So before the sessions began, I reached out to friends and colleagues who DID know about Israel. (Many thanks to Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser and Rich Walter of the Center for Israel Education for all the hand-holding and amazing resources!) Each month, my prep begins all over. There is no phoning it in; even as a seasoned educator, with each of these lessons I am literally am starting from scratch. I read and read and read and then brainstorm ways that I can pass the information along to others in an engaging and informed way. I myself feel engaged and also mentally exhausted after each monthly session. My adult students are learning right alongside me, and it’s inspiring.

I have not had to do this level of preparation for a class in a very long time, and yet I am learning so much about myself as a teacher and as a Jew. I am making sure to share my experience with my work team so that they know that as a veteran educator, I still have much to learn, and I am still open to taking risks.

At the end of this year, I will have learned so much… while simultaneously teaching others.

Maybe I am the right teacher for the class after all.

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