Know Before Whom You Stand

da lifnei

When I walk into a synagogue anywhere in the world, there are certain things that I look for. I check out the bulletin boards and brochures to see what’s going on in the congregation, because I’m fascinated by how communities present themselves in terms of the information they provide others. I look for the kiddush, because #priorities. And I check out the sanctuary because I believe in the power of intentional and sacred architecture to tell the story of a community and its values. And often, near the ark, there’s a quote. There seem to be several options for what this defining verse is that a congregation chooses to put front and center, and I often wonder how many people actually think about it, or if it fades into the background, simply another accoutrement in an often elaborate room.

One verse that pops up over and over again is the one that I’ve included above - the admonishment to know before whom you stand. And that’s what I want to reflect on today, from the lens of both learner and educator. First, I’d like to provide the disclaimer that this reflection truly is my midrash - I recognize that the classic use of this verse is reminding us as Jews and as human beings about God’s presence. But, I’m choosing to take things in a slightly different direction.

As educators, it’s our job to intimately know the learners in front of us. And as learners, it’s our obligation to know our teachers.

When I think of the admonition to know before who I’m standing as an educator, I think about how important it is that my learners be treated as the complex, multifaceted individuals that they are. Rather than lumping them all together, or going in with a packaged lesson idea, or simply assuming that I know everything about them because they’re a group of teens from the suburbs, I need to actually get to know them, and to learn who I’m standing in front of. It’s the responsibility of us as educators to understand + connect with our learners on their level. Because knowing their details - their dreams, their struggles, the baggage they’re bringing with them - is the only way to truly reach them in meaningful, authentic ways.

And then the flip side - as an educator, I want my students to know me. Not just the caricature of a teacher/leader/however else they see me, but my complexities and flaws and aspirations and passions. I believe that it enhances my teaching when they know that I’m questioning, or struggling, or super dogmatic, or dealing with something completely unrelated that somehow impacts how the day is going.

Knowing who our counterparts are on both sides of the educational equation is crucial for the success of our work. It’s what allows me to remember that I’m not just teaching Israel, or history, or philanthropy, or any other aspect of Judaism. I’m teaching people, and knowing them is key to that mission.

What do you do to get to know your students? How do you let them get to know you?