The Ultimate Lesson

Nobody told me that having children meant that I had to go to school again. Nor did they tell me that having three kids meant that I had to go to school again and again and again.

With the start of the new school year I am doing homework again, learning all the kids names again, establishing relationships with the teachers again; all times three while also going to work and trying to fulfill my adult responsibilities.

With our oldest in third grade, we have gotten familiar with the Israeli school system, at least the part that we are in. There are some striking differences between the schools our children attend and those in which my wife and I passed through in New Jersey. These range from academic to social differences, not to mention the general culture which we’ve come to expect.

We are just expected to know, for instance, that on the first day of the new Hebrew month (Rosh Chodesh) our children should be dressed in white shirts and blue pants. No note is sent home, no phone call made; we are just expected to know.

My children learn additional subjects like mishnah and horticulture which I did not encounter until I was much older. Even when my children study the same subjects I learned, they seem to be learning very differently than I did. For instance, in music they have ear training and learn to read music which I learned privately.

From first grade, Israeli schools expect a level of independence which was not entrusted to us until we were much older. Children change rooms independently, meeting different teachers for different subjects according to when the bells ring – from the age of six! They do this with the rest of their class which is also a different entity than in America.

Israeli classes travel together throughout their school years. In the Israeli ideal, children go through their whole childhood with one unchanging group. Starting in preschool, through kindergarten, elementary school, middle and high school, they are with the same kids. This also extends to their youth groups and army units. Ultimately it is believed that this makes them better citizens and they will join the corresponding political party of their upbringing to be an active citizen, contributing back to the system from which they were bred.

This is the concept of “gee-boosh” which literally means crystallization or consolidation. My children will go through elementary school for six years with the same children in all of their classes. Of course there are exceptions. This year four kids joined my son’s third grade class – all are English speakers: Gabriella’s father is on Sabbatical from MIT, Itai transferred in from another class, Marty made aliyah from California, and Eran returned to Israel after four years in New York. All of these children were welcomed into the collective, one even being elected to the class committee.

As parents, we also go through a process of “gee-boosh”. At the parents’ meeting for my son’s kindergarten class, my wife and I rolled our eyes and mothers argued which snacks they should be allowed to include in their children’s birthday parties. Two nights later we attended the parents’ meeting for our third-grader’s class. It ran half the time and much more efficiently. Although the teacher was new to us, after at least two years together, parents knew what to expect from each other and discussion was minimized. It simply was not needed because we have developed a level of trust between ourselves sharing responsibilities, knowing each others’ talents, strengths and weaknesses. We have “crystalized” and work as one unit for the good of the whole.

Despite the differences, the most important educational component in any school, in any system in any country remains the same and is sorely undervalued. We can have a bad teacher in a good school or a good teacher in a bad school. Teachers make the difference.

My wife and I have been blessed with excellent teachers both in our own education and in our children’s thus far. We are still in touch with many of our teachers. Our paths cross or we have bridged the distance with e-mail. To those of our teachers who are reading this, I thank you. You have made a difference in our lives.

In the parents’ meeting, Shemer’s third grade teacher, Oshra, said that not only does she see her role as making the class, which is a good class, a better class, but as a catalyst, pushing each student to fulfill his potential. Shemer must have heard us talking about it because he asked us, “Why is a good teacher demanding?” We explained that a good teacher challenges you to do your best to which he replied “I don’t want to be my best, I just want to be me.”

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