The following is written by a cantorial student at HUC in New York.
Sarah Krevsky experienced as a chaplain, says the principles of being a chaplain may well be the principles to bring to Jewish engagement. See what you think ( I say brilliant).
The following quotes are chaplaincy principles I used frequently while making patient visits in the hospital. Now used in framing education.
“Meet them where they are” – Each time my beeper went off and I was called into the hospital for an emergency, I repeated this mantra to myself over and over again. Perhaps the distressed patient would be angry, or scared, or hopeful, or nervous – who knew? It was not my job to guess ahead of time, but to walk into the room and meet them where they were in that moment. It would not make sense to speak to someone who felt angry with God as if they have hope for the future. Similarly, this principle can be used in the classroom. Who knows what has gone on during the day before students arrived in my classroom? It would not make sense to keep a quiet, contemplative lesson plan if my students are full of energy because they did not have recess earlier that day. By staying aware of how my students are doing in every moment, I can reorganize my lesson a bit in order to help to ensure that they get the most out of the lesson I am teaching them.
“Notice and acknowledge different feelings in the room” – Often times when sitting with a patient, I would verbally note that they looked sad or that they sounded frustrated. Acknowledging a person’s feelings allows that person to be heard and can even normalize his or her emotions in what feels like an abnormal situation. This approach can also be used in the classroom whether interacting with a group or an individual.
A few weeks ago, I noticed that in the beginning of the Hebrew lesson, my students were excited and engaged, but about twenty minutes into the lesson they started to look bored. What could have happened if I said to them, “Guys, what’s going on? You look pretty bored right now. Is that true?” Perhaps we could have spoken about why they were feeling unengaged and what we could have changed to make them feel more interested and connected to the lesson. Or perhaps I misinterpreted their perceived disinterest with confusion about the material – perhaps I could have learned from them that they simply did not understand the information I was trying to present.
Noting the feelings of individual students also helps with classroom management. Often times in the middle of a lesson that I took hours to carefully plan, one of my students interrupts with a sudden case of the giggles. Despite my best efforts to kindly tell them to please sit down, it works to no avail. So, I gently pull aside my “problem” child and ask them how he or she is feeling and then make it verbally explicit how their behavior makes me feel. I stand eye level with the student so I am not standing above their heads, and say “Jamie, I can see that you have a lot of energy today. What are you feeling so excited about?….I love that you have such good friends at the synagogue and understand why you want to talk to them, but when you talk to your friends when I’m trying to tell the class something it makes me feel hurt. Do you think you could try and calm down a little bit? Maybe take a quick walk before coming back to class?” By acknowledging how my students might be feeling, as well as identifying how their behavior makes me feel, it takes some of the mystery out of the situation. Although I do not expect my student to be perfect the rest of class, I find that speaking honestly with my students is very helpful. Keeping track of the different feelings in the room and checking in with my learners helps create a more positive learning environment and a more engaged teacher.
“Incorporating ritual” - At the end of almost every patient visit, I would end our time with a short prayer. Sanctifying the time we spent together by speaking together to God allowed us to connect to God, each other, and create trust. Often times, in fact, our conversations would continue in deeper ways after the prayer ended. Using ritual in the classroom has the exact same effect. I recently substituted for a class of four, five, and six-year-olds. We rode up together in the elevator to the classroom, and I could feel their skepticism and nerves. Where was their regular teacher? Who is this new teacher? Can she be trusted? As soon as we arrived in the classroom, I invited everyone to sit on the floor with me so we could all introduce ourselves. We took turns going around the circle and said our name, favorite color, and birthday. Slowly, I could feel their skepticism melt away and their trust in me slowly grew. They began chatting with me more and joking in a special way that only five-year-olds are experts at. Although the circle-sharing ritual is different from the bed-side ritual, they both allow sacred connection to happen. In the case of circle-sharing the connections made help to support a kehillah k’dosha, a sacred community. Incorporating ritual all year long can help to build class trust and relationships.
“Including God in the conversation” – Talking about God and talking to God can feel awkward sometimes. How do you know God is listening? Is it ok to be angry with God? What do you say to God? For some patients, talking to God felt easy while for others it was more difficult, but, when I was in the room, it was my role to help guide that conversation. Similarly, it is the responsibility of Jewish educators to help students develop their own spiritual life. Simply teaching kids the words and melodies to prayers leaves a significant gap in their prayer education. I taught a music class to three and four-year-olds. For the past few months, we have been singing the Allard’s song “God is One” which talks about all the places God could be: in the grass, in the flowers, in the tables and chairs. Most recently we added the song “Are You Listening God?” We discussed whether God could hear us when we talk to God. I explained that sometimes when I like to talk to God, I sit in a big comfy chair in my house right by the window where I can see the sky. I suggested that they create a God Corner in their room where they could go and talk to God if they want. Educators ought to encourage and facilitate a relationship to God early in children’s lives so that they can build the skills and understandings to have a stronger relationship with God as they move into their teens and young adulthood.
“Help facilitate self-discovery” – Sometimes in a hospital setting, it is the chaplain’s job to help the patient realize something about them that had been previously hidden. One of my patients who recovered from back surgery in the ICU realized through our conversations together that although she loved her family, she needed to spend more time taking care of herself; similarly, educators should help learners come to realizations about their own Jewish life, practice, and belief. This goal is admittedly difficult to do sometimes, but is worth pursing for the sake of the learner. Bringing a text to study with a group of adults can always bring about interesting conversations, but the conversation can be elevated to a moment of self-discovery in helping them to understand how our ancient, holy text can be related to our modern lives. I found myself as a learner in this situation recently studying a Chassidic text focusing on Shabbat. For six days you will work and on the seventh you will rest. Shabbat is a built in time for me to rest, I realized. It is difficult to remember on your own to stop and take a breath, but Shabbat is always included in the workweek schedule so that I do not have to remember. I just have to rest. I found this realization to be liberating.
My teacher did a few things to help me come to this realization. He asked gentle, open ended, guiding questions, which allowed me to think and consider the concept. My teacher also allowed for long moments of silence, which gave me time to thoughtfully consider his questions. Although long silences can sometimes feel uncomfortable, taking the time can produce fruitful conversations.
Chaplaincy is part of my identity. I am drawn to helping people and being there to support people particularly in times of crisis. These wonderful tools do not need to live in a hospital vacuum, but can also be implemented in the classroom. Using the tools of chaplaincy is a way of treating and educating the whole person in his or her process of learning. As both a learner and a teacher, I have seen these techniques used and found that they work incredibly well. I am excited for the future and look forward to spending time in the classroom with my future students!