By Avi Baran Munro, Ed.M., Head of School
I was privileged to hear Rabbi Harold Kushner address an international audience of 15,000 educators at the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development’s Annual Conference. While I felt proud that a rabbi had been invited to address this international society of educators, I was even more moved by his message.
Rabbi Kushner’s talk was titled “The Classroom as Sacred Space.” He proudly cited the Jewish tradition of learning and the fact that when we speak of our greatest leader, Moshe, we refer to him as our teacher. He asserted that there is holiness in the teaching and learning that takes place in classrooms, and that this process is not only about knowledge, but also about transforming learners so they can transform the world.
This notion resonates with me on many levels and goes directly to my philosophy of education in the broadest sense. If one accepts the premise that the classroom is a sacred space, then the implications permeate every dimension of school life.
What does such a school look like?
Educators are respected.
In a school that views the classroom as a sacred space, the teacher is seen to be doing sacred work. This is true in any setting and in Jewish settings it is doubly true. In such a school, Judaic and secular studies are not distinct departments. They support and reinforce one another through logical opportunities for integration across the curriculum. As such, teachers in Jewish schools have a dual mission. First, they must provide an intellectually stimulating and academically competitive education for their students. Second, they must succeed in inspiring their students to be proud of who they are and to celebrate their Judaism at every opportunity. Educators who succeed in both these missions are performing a high form of tikkun olam, repair of the world.
Hence, the school and the community must value, treasure, and recognize teachers as partners with parents and community in raising each child to successful adulthood. In a school that views teacher work as sacred, teachers are part of the leadership team and have the opportunity to provide their expertise toward the betterment of the school.
Learning is respected.
The entire organization promotes learning as the priority for the institution. Interruptions to classroom learning are kept to an absolute minimum. Visitors may come into the classroom to observe, but do not interrupt the learning that is taking place. PA announcements are rare. This in itself communicates to the children that the adults respect their time and what they are doing.
When learning is respected, mere coverage of material is recognized to be a poor excuse for education. When authentic learning is valued, teachers do not rely on worksheets and workbook pages alone. While such exercises are certainly a legitimate piece of a broader repertoire of learning supports, authentic learning requires that teachers and students together engage in a process of inquiry and discovery that is constructive and interactive. The implication here is that teachers and students are all learners. Professional development then becomes a cultural practice in the school. Every day is professional development day. Doors are open and teachers share ideas and research their practice daily, with even the very best teachers always striving to be better.
Children are respected.
Rabbi Kushner observes that even classrooms that are not physically dangerous can be emotionally dangerous. Humiliation of children has no place in a school that views itself as a sacred space. This applies to relationships among children as well as to relations between children and adults in the school. In a school where children are respected, a child’s time is not wasted, children are neither bored nor overwhelmed. Children with different learning styles need to be recognized and respected for their unique abilities, for what they can do, not defined by what they cannot do. Educators must plan in such ways that allow all children to grow from one stage of learning to the next, without so rigidly defining those stages that some children surpass them too soon, while others never attain them at all. While the recognition of differences definitely has a place in the educational experience, labeling, inflexible grouping, and limiting opportunities based on one-dimensional assessments of skills have no place in a school that views learning as sacred.
In a school where children are respected, discipline and standards of behavior are maintained and reinforced through a process of shared, consistent expectations throughout the school. Children feel respected when they are held to a high standard of behavior, and the methods for communicating and enforcing those expectations need to be respectful of all parties involved as well.
Parents are respected.
As members of the learning community, parents need to feel respected in the context of their overwhelming and sometimes overpowering interest in, and love for, their child. Parents need to be educated as well and it can only be in the child’s best interest to view parents in the context of this sacred space, and work with them, the teacher, and the child involved to create the best learning opportunities for that child. A school that cannot recognize and meet the unique requirements of a child and a family cannot call itself a school that meets individual needs.
The facility itself is respected.
If the school is a sacred space then the building and grounds must reflect that value. Children and adults in the building must work together to build a sense of pride and ownership in the place where everyone learns. Student councils and the leadership teams work together to create habits of caring for the physical space so that learning can happen in an appealing and safe environment.
The school as an institution is respected.
The elements described above represent, in a very broad sense, my vision for Community Day School. The overall picture is one of respect for all parties and for the work that they do. This includes kitchen and maintenance staff, office staff, and the administrative leadership team, in addition to teachers, students, and parents.
I believe that the creation of a sacred space as described above is something that requires vision and instructional leadership. Thanks to the presence of a talented, established team of administrators and faculty, we are singularly focused on creating a sacred space for learning in all the ways discussed above, and more.