Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Back in High School Again

By: Dr. Gillian Steinberg, English Faculty

I’d cried in gymnasiums plenty of times before.  As a child in tiny Fredonia, New York, I’d failed at rope climbing, waited miserably to be picked last for teams, and was inevitably felled by the weight of the giant medicine ball in endless games of Nuke ‘Em.  But crying in the gym because I was happy?  That had never happened before I came to SAR.

As a college professor for 15 years, I have been asked again and again this year how teaching at SAR high school differs from teaching college.  The answer, as with many things, is that it’s incredibly, profoundly different and that it’s really pretty similar.

The biggest difference is a very practical one: the schedule.  I’ve lost the extraordinary freedom I had before, when I taught only two or three half-days a week as part of a full-time position.  The rest of my time as a professor was filled with writing and scholarship, and the office hallways were generally deserted as professors, myself included, came to campus only for their classes and office hours and spent the rest of their time in libraries or coffee shops, writing in solitude.
I absolutely miss that quiet writing time, but I don’t very much miss the oppressive pressure to publish, which was not limited to my former university but is integral to professorships everywhere.  High school’s commitment exclusively to teaching feels like an amazing gift.  At the university, I always felt a tension in my bifurcated existence: when I focused on my teaching, I knew I should be researching and writing instead, but when I was writing, I worried that I was shortchanging my students, who were entitled only to a fraction of my time and attention.
The enormous upside of teaching the same high school classes every day, rather than two longer or one very long college session per week, is that the teaching is, frankly, better.  Having tried both schedules now, I realize that we can accomplish more in multiple short bursts than in longer but less frequent meetings.  Students (and teachers!) need not steel themselves for hours of concerted attention at a time, and everyday meetings allow for a continuity of learning that I didn’t realize I’d missed until I finally had it. 
Along the same lines, I’m thrilled that, as my university colleagues now reach the end of their semester and begin to prepare for a new batch of students in several weeks, I can continue working with the same students for six more months.  At the college, just as I began to know my students well, they were gone, on to new classes and new learning experiences.  But at the high school, my insight into the students’ unique needs and learning styles is just being concretized, and I can devote the rest of the year to meeting their needs as effectively as I can.  Simply put, we have more time and space to grow together just because of the differences in high school and college scheduling.
Without the obligation to publish, and with the commitment to being present all day, I find that I have many, many more conversations about teaching and pedagogy than I did at the university.  Because I share an office with my colleagues, we have spontaneous discussions about our classes constantly.  We share teaching materials and strategies; we share frustrations and offer each other solutions to our teaching questions.  The isolation of the university environment, which always felt to me like a privilege, has been replaced for me by a much more valuable commodity: the opportunity for spontaneous and ongoing collaboration.
The similarities are notable too: in particular, I love the college students and the high school students equally.  Both groups are deeply committed to learning, have fascinating opinions and ideas, struggle with their busy schedules and the many pressures they face, and bring me enormous joy.  Both groups remind me of how lucky I am to be in a profession that can touch lives, even in a small and local way.  Each group has surprised with its many talents and occasionally frustrated me with its various needs, and I have felt wonderfully challenged in both environments to focus on what students need and how I can best facilitate their learning.
All of these comparisons, though, speak to the difference between college and high school teaching generally.  But SAR High School is its own creature, and I have had to adapt as well to this distinctive environment.  I've had to learn a surprising number of acronyms (SLC, GLC, MPR, PTC, RPT: I keep a running list), become accustomed to a level of ambient noise I haven’t experienced since I was a camp counselor during my own high school years, expect a new special schedule on a daily basis (so much so that the “regular” schedule feels awfully special now!), and develop an almost Pavlovian response to that electronic bell.
More importantly, I’ve had to adapt to levels of joy, kindness, beauty, morality, thoughtful leadership, and meaningful introspection that were foreign to my own high school experience and have never before been part of my work life.  The phrase that often comes to mind when I think of SAR is “intentional community,” which, although generally referring to a municipality rather than a school, suggests organic and communally-based mindfulness about its philosophies and principles.  That environment doesn’t happen by accident, and I have been so impressed by SAR’s empowerment of its constituents, at every level, who are treated with respect and who therefore act with respect.  SAR High School has created a self-perpetuating environment of goodness, in its broadest and most inclusive sense.
Which brings us back to the gymnasium.  It was my first Rosh Chodesh chagigah, another special schedule, another new event.  We began with the students, arms intertwined, circling the entire gymnasium and singing heartfelt praises of and longing for Eretz Yisrael.  Those slow, moving moments gave way to raucous dancing, students racing around the gym with joy.  The event overwhelmed me, initially seeming chaotic.  But then I noticed the seniors purposely separating from their friends to grab groups of freshmen, sophomores and juniors and pull them into the circles, dancing and celebrating their Jewishness and their membership in this incredible community.  Some students grabbed me too, and I danced with them, noticing not the typical high school cliques that have ruined high school experiences for so many of us  but something else entirely: a sense of togetherness, of responsibility for one another’s joy, an arvut that spread through the room in great, crashing waves of love.
I felt Hashem’s presence with us in that room, and, with tears in my eyes, I said a small prayer of thanks: that this place exists, that this moment occurs, that I am part of it.