Tuesday, February 16, 2010

First Grade and Rocket Science

A comment on a schooling thread on another blog stated "after all, teaching a first grader chumash doesn't take rocket science." Well yes, it's hardly necessary to have a PhD. in aero-dynamics or any other PhD. to be teaching the first course in elementary school. However.....

Ever have a bad teacher in your elementary school days? You know the kind I'm talking about. Perhaps that teacher gave you tummy aches every time you thought about him/her and you headed for your bed and told your mom you were too sick to go to school. Sometimes it even worked out that you got to stay home. Sometimes a teacher scared you and you couldn't concentrate on what you were supposed to be learning and maybe fell behind or developed a real dislike of the subject matter. Sometimes the teacher merely bored you to death with a bland and energy-lacking approach. You tuned out and thought your own thoughts just to have something to do. Sometimes the teacher was a real homework fiend--didn't teach much during class and left it all up to you at home. You resented having to be both teacher and pupil at one and the same time.

Whatever your reasons for designating that teacher as a bad teacher it didn't end there. It wasn't just the teacher who was bad--school was bad. Perhaps if you were older when you had this bad teacher you already would have developed enough smarts to separate out the teacher from school in general--you would place blame where blame was due...maybe. But first graders don't have the experience or the maturity to evaluate a teacher clinically. Hand a first grader a bad rebbi/morah or a bad secular studies teacher and you may be setting the tone for how they will regard school for years to come.

PhD no, but talent and ability and dedication yes. I remember two first grade rebbis with a smile on my face even now, and they weren't my rebbis. The first was my sister's first grade rebbi at the then HILI in Far Rockaway. Rebbi Mandel a"h (yes a brother to the R. Mandel who began YOB--readers should note that chareidi rebbis in MO schools is NOT a new phenomenom) was a joy and a wonder to behold. Students couldn't wait to get to class so they could be with him. All of us eagerly awaited my baby sister's coming home from school so that we could hear some more Rebbi Mandel stories. It was said by many in the Far Rockaway area, and not as a joke, that if Rebbi Mandel every decided to retire HILI would fold up. What made him so special? You have a month to listen? He loved children, loved learning and had the talent and dedication to turn antsy first graders into eager learners.

The second first grade Rebbi I remember with fondness was my son's first grade Rebbi at RJJ. I remember thinking before he entered into first grade that it would be lovely if he could have a teacher like my sister's, but what was the chance. And then my son came home on the first day and eagerly started telling us Rebbi Pollak stories. And that eagerness and enthusiasm carried over for the whole year. I volunteered through PTA as the class mother for my son's class and got to interact with Rebbi Pollak as well, and yes, I, too, have wonderful memories of "being in his class."

It's not a question of rocket science when you look at teaching chumash to first graders, but it is a very real question of talent, dedication and personality. If that "first step" into education is boring or scary or difficult or any other negative term, you run the risk of having your child turned off by school, with many years yet to go. So yes, having an extraordinary first grade teacher means that person is worth his/her weight in gold, if not diamonds and rubies. Oh that there were more Rebbis like Rebbi Mandel and Rebbi Pollak out there to inspire our children. Imagine that your child has a day off from school. Now think of your first grader's Rebbi/Morah. What are the chances that your child will complain about the vacation day because it means they don't get to be with Rebbi that day? I heard that complaint from my sister and I heard it also from my son. Halevi that all parents should be so lucky as to have first grade teachers like they were.


Lion of Zion said...

first grade--actually all--teachers need to be talented, educated, dedicated, patient, etc.
cdefinately not traits that everyone has.
but on the other hand, semicha (real or, as is sometimes the case, overnight) or sitting in kollel for a few years is not a credential for the job and it shouldn't be considered as such when considering salary packages.

Tuvi said...

Agree Lion that all teachers should be dedicated, talented etc., but you and I both know that that isn't always so. I think the Prof has a point that a first grade teacher can make a big difference in how your kid looks at school not just first grade.

Re having semicha and teaching first grade, I don't think it's the necessary credentials for the job and would agree that having semicha shouldn't count in the salary discussion.

efrex said...

Although I have sworn by everything I hold sacred that I will never be a teacher, I have had many a conversation with my mother, sister, and wife (teachers all - now you know why I made that vow above) about what makes a good teacher. To my mind, a teacher, no matter what grade level or subject, needs to have the following three characteristics:

1) knowledge of the material being taught
2) genuine love of the material being taught
3) respect for the students

Over 23 years of schooling, I have had and seen wonderful teachers with extremely different styles of teaching and widely varying personalities, and they all posessed these traits. I also have had horrible teachers, and all of them were missing at least one of them.

My 7th-grade English and Science teachers were unquestionably two of the most influential teachers in my grade school years. Remarkably, they were also two of my sister's most influential teachers, even though we were (and are) extremely different in our outlook and preferences. Good teachers inspire students across the spectrum of capabilities; bad teachers destroy them.

By the way, anyone who thinks that teaching first grade chumash is easy is simply out of his or her mind. Teaching rocket science is easy: by the time you're teaching it, you're dealing with a self-selected group that has a demonstrated interest in the topic, there are a finite number of topics, equations, and concepts to be learned, and the material progresses logically from one phase (pardon the small pun) to another.

Teaching chumash to first graders means exploring some of the most difficult philosophical concepts in terms comprehensible to 5-year-olds, doing so in a language that most are not comfortable with, to an audience of highly variable abilities, interest, and background (no matter how rigid the student selection process is). There is no easy way to progress through the material, and a rebbe who turns a student off to chumash has done much more damage than a teacher who turns a student off to algebra.

Anonymous said...

That's exactly why people should not choose teaching because of (i) free or reduced tuition; (ii) mother's hours and/or getting summers/holidays off; or (iii) not trained/qualified to do anything else. Teaching should be for those with the right skills and knowledge and love of teaching and children.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of Morah Devorah who was the 1st grade teacher in RJJ for Girls in SI.

dvorak613 said...

You really hit the nail on the head! I am still in touch with several high school teachers that I had a connection with and also with the 3 best elementary school teachers I had, one of whom was my 1st grade morah; on the flip side, I am still scarred by all the bad teachers I've had- especially my 3rd grade general studies teacher. I have a particular aversion math and it's not because I'm "not a math person", but rather because most of my worst teachers taught math. By the time I had a great math teacher, I was in 11th grade and turned off forever.

I wanted to be a teacher because I genuinely love working with kids (though I'll admit that I'm crazy and prefer adolescents) but I chose adolescent counseling instead because it has the potential to make more money, especially if I go into private practice. I may only be expecting my first right now, but tuition looms large and scary over our heads...

I will just add that becoming a teacher is no slouch. Some of my counseling courses are requirements for teachers too, such as educational psychology. Suffice it to say that profound as Chovos HaTalmidim is, having learned it does NOT qualify you to be an educator.

Lion of Zion said...


" I think the Prof has a point that a first grade teacher can make a big difference in how your kid looks at school not just first grade. "

yes, good point.

Trudy said...

You are right for the most part, and certainly a first grade teacher needs someone who will be a great introduction to school and learning, but there are some exceptions. Three of my kids loved their 4th grade teacher. The last one was all prepared to love her too based on the stories her siblings told her. It didn't happen. Maybe a personality clash, maybe too high expectations on my daughter's part. Yet she loved her sixth grade science teacher and the rest were only so so about him.

Lion of Zion said...

i think sensitivity and the ability to encourage good social skills are still important in first grade too.

Mystery Woman said...

I would change efrex's #3 to love for the students. Respect is great, but kids know when they're loved, and they respond to it.

Libby said...

You make a valid point that a bad first grade teacher can turn a child off of school. My girls had a terrific set of teachers for first grade. My son did not. Who do you think was the one who didn't like school very much? Finally in sixth grade he had an English teacher who was the kind of teacher we all hope for for our kids. And he finally got why his sisters seemed to like school more then he did.

The older you are the more you can learn from even a so so teacher. The really young kids need the top teachers.

G6 said...

I agree wholeheartedly with this one.
I am very sad about two very disturbing trends:

1) The "those who can't do, teach" mentality.
2) The "I'm just doing this until I get married and move to Lakewood in the middle of the year and leave the school high and dry" mentality.

Debby said...

What we could use for our yeshiva system is an idea from the public schools, the one of Master Teachers. These are the types of teachers you describe. In the public system they are 1)available to mentor new or less experienced teachers and 2)they are the ones that college students doing student teaching are placed with.

Many of the girls and guys who end up teaching in yeshiva, sometimes because they can't think of anything else to do or don't want to be out in the secular world, would benefit if they would be required to be an assistant in one of these Master Teacher's classrooms before being given their own class. They might learn that teaching isn't just a way of passing the time until something else comes along.

Mike S. said...

I am a rocket scientist. And while I doubt a good elementary school teacher, whether of chumash or other subjects, can do my job, I am quite sure I cannot do theirs.
I can teach gemara to adults (at least, to adults who aren't my children) but I have neither the patience nor the ability to make an emotional connection with young children to make a good teacher. And I wasn't all that great at teaching science to undergraduates in my time of doing that either. There are many different types of skill and expertise in this world and none of us has all of them. I suspect that none of us, at least none of us who has not suffered some unfortunate brain damage, has none of them.

Lon said...

I think the "not rocket science" attitude is a big mistake. I remember having a logical question in second or third grade that the teacher couldn't (or wasn't prepared to) answer.

(It was something like that the Torah is proof to the non-Jews about something or another and my question was, "But non-Jews don't believe in the Torah so how can it be proof?")

It was the beginning of a very dismal record that eventually led to me not bothering to ask questions at all; that's what fathers are for, right?

correction said...

"R. Mandel who began YOB"

He didn't begin it. See the book YOB put out for their centennial not that long ago.

ProfK said...

I haven't seen the book not having been connected to YOB for many years, but when I taught there, and I imagine even now, if you mentioned YOB the first name that popped up was Mandel. Whatever the historical underpinnings, Mandel is seen by the public as synonymous with YOB.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

I vehemently disagree with the opening assertion! I am a school teacher (was), the son and brother and relative of school teachers. In addition to professional training, I have observed teachers at different grades. Teaching the earliest grades may require the most imagination, insight, innovation, and understanding of child development of all the pre-college years. Mike S. is right that is much easier for an adult to teach other adults or near-adults, where the communication and thinking styles and manners of cognition are similar. For an adult, who is used to thinking and learning like an adult, to be able to begin a child's education and development in learning requires all the things mentioned - and it requires a great degree of insight and professionalism.

For four years I taught HS in a school that ran from pre-K through HS. I would often walk down to the elementary wing to visit, observe, and sneak a peek at my then-little daughters. I was consistently awed and humbled by what the elementary teachers did. I would point out, by the way, that one of the most innovative educators was the phys-ed instructor. He understood fully well that he was helping these children with their physical, emotional, and cognitive development; and did an awesome job of it.

LOZ is right that these grades don't require someone with s'micha at all. But they do require really fine educators who may well be the rocket scientists in the school, if they are going to do a really good job of it.