As school year begins, let’s learn from — and teach — one another

Cody Burkett (center) is pictured with her former students, sisters Sadie (left) and Carli Alper, at the girls’ bat mitzvah outside United Hebrew Congregation on Saturday. Sadie and Carli are the daughters of Craig and Kerri Alper.

Ellen Futterman

On Saturday morning, my daughter-in-law Cody Burkett went to an outdoor b’nai mitzvah of two former students, who are sisters, at United Hebrew Congregation. One of the sisters looped with Cody in fourth and fifth grades, meaning Cody had the same students both years, while the other sister was in Cody’s class for fifth grade.

When Cody came to our house for a socially distanced visit on Sunday, she told us how joyful the service was and how well both sisters had recited their Torah portions and spoke. The 45 or so people in attendance were seated or standing at least 6 feet apart and everyone wore masks. Cody, 32, explained that watching the sisters, Sadie and Carli Alper, become a bat mitzvah gave her such nachas (my word, not hers), not just for what the sisters had achieved but also because of the love and sense of community that prevailed. Cody felt honored that her former students and their family wanted her there. 

I smiled. No big surprise. Of course, they wanted her there.  

Cody is the kind of teacher that kids remember — in the best way possible — long after they leave her classroom. She takes the extra time, makes the extra effort and works long and hard to form relationships with each of her students so that they can learn, develop and grow to their fullest potential.

We likely all know teachers like Cody and if we were lucky, even had our share. They are the ones who get to know us as individuals and forge a connection that over the course of the school year — and beyond — assures us they remain in our corner, rooting for us. Their actions demonstrate how much they care.

Right now teachers, students and parents are starting the school year on ground that is, at the very least, unsettled and unsettling. No one seems sure how best to teach our children in the safest surroundings possible. At home, virtually? In person, masked and in cohorts? Possibly a little of both? Who knows what is best, what will cause the fewest disruptions, what will provide students with the tools they need to succeed academically, emotionally and socially, amid the backdrop of this pandemic?

Perhaps all we can do is dig deep into our backpack of Jewish values to find the patience and empathy to be respectful of one another as we navigate this educational conundrum. There are no easy answers. What works well for one child or one teacher or one parent might spell disaster for another. No one-size-fits-all when it comes to learning.

Many of my educator friends are stressed about having to lead classrooms online. One veteran teacher pointed out that when schools shut down in March, she at least knew the children in her class, and they knew her. There was a high level of trust, which in turn helped to further learning. Now, she not only has to form new relationships with a new class, but she cannot do so in person. She knows this challenge isn’t insurmountable — she’s attended numerous trainings to address this very issue — but still, she is anxious. And this doesn’t even take into account the number of children in her class who have special needs and require more individualized instruction.

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It seems to me that more than ever we need our St. Louis Jewish community, especially as school begins. Together, as a community, we can support and hopefully lift each other up. We can share ideas and examples of what is working for us as educators, parents and students. We can learn from one another through trial and error.

So let’s give it a shot and work together. Now is not the time to be disheartened but rather to connect. Let’s use the Jewish Light as a vehicle to share information. We want to hear from educators, parents and students about what is working well and what needs improvement. What difficulties have you overcome? What risks paid off and how? What outcomes have surprised you? Help us to tell your personal stories by emailing [email protected] Feel free to give as much or as little detail as you’d like in the email but be sure to include your name and a phone number so we can talk further.

While there are so many unknowns going forward, one thing is for sure: Having a teacher who positively impacts you as a person, who helps shape who you are, is perhaps the greatest educational gift of all. And there’s nothing that says in-person instruction is the only way to learn that lesson.

 News and Schmooze is a weekly column by Editor Ellen Futterman. Email Ellen at: [email protected]