Balance as the elusive state of equilibrium has challenged us all during the COVID-19 pandemic. Finding the sweet spot in managing our home life and work demands when conflated into a boundaryless 24 /6 phenomenon has taken over our lives personally and professionally. Anxious, self-absorbed and off kilter in these uncertain times, we are stymied to provide critical leadership to our teachers, parents and students. How do we best provide continuous learning remotely for families with multiple children, for families with parents working from home by default or outside the home as essential services, with classes provided by teachers and principals who find themselves in the very same challenging situations?!
As each child presents as a unique student with individual needs in the classroom and different family dynamics, so too each school profiles with a unique demographic which it serves from large to small, from in town to out of town, from Yeshiva to Modern Orthodox and community/ Kiruv. Sweeping generalizations and comparative reflections are thus superficial with the blatant exception of the obvious that we are now all addressing “dinei nefashot’ in the literal and figurative senses.
Many schools combine synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities for their students with live Zoom or phone lessons together with video instruction and or paper packet mailing or mailbox deliveries in an attempt to provide instruction which works for the myriad of family and student needs. Synchronous learning provides critical socioemotional connectivity with the class or breakout group as well as with the teacher and is ideal for conversation, brainstorming and discussion of text or concept. Asynchronous learning affords the opportunity for pacing allowing the family/student to choose the time to view the video lesson and more importantly the option to pause and replay sections to solidify the instruction.
The current social and communication phenomenon dubbed “zoom fatigue’ intrigues me in its educational parallels. Beyond the extensive and addictive screen time issues of being glued to technology all day for work and family check -ins, zoom fatigue connotes the actual physiological state of sheer exhaustion we are now experiencing. This is true despite the fact that many of us can actually sleep an extra hour without the pressure of timed minyanim and traffic commuting to school. Significantly, the completely drained, depleted feeling engulfing us is in fact as much mental as it is physical.
Zoom instruction is inherently two dimensional with the screen acting as barrier which does not allow us to reach out and touch someone, so to speak. We see thumbnail shots of students from the shoulders up and are unable to process body language clues. Chats are asynchronous and not verbal connections, screens often freeze, and students are muted during instruction to prevent distracting feedback, when ‘feedback’ without time lags is what we truly need to ascertain student mastery! The fulcrum of instruction has been jarringly recalibrated such that teachers are compelled to do the heavy lifting of instruction at the same time that students frustratingly ask themselves what the teacher actually wants from them, dinging the clarity of that instruction. The artificial reality in which we find ourselves is devoid of the critical dynamic of the third dimension of learning. Educationally, we have come so far from frontal lectures and have transformed our instruction into engaging interactive learning experiences in real time with our students with clear learning targets, such that there is a genuine electrifying partnership developed between teacher and student. This has all suddenly been arrested in its tracks. No wonder we are exhausted and emotionally drained after each hour long zoom session!
While we can and should spice up the Zoom routines with mystery guests – from next year’s rebbi or morah, to an appearance by a local Rav or Rebbetzin, to a museum docent in costume – we will ultimately all nonetheless experience “Zoom fatigue” without the passion that highlights live face to face instruction.
This fulcrum metaphor is an apt analogy for the larger issue of the lack of human connectivity in instruction in this time of social distancing. The Kli Yakar famously comments upon the passuk of “vihavta liraecha kamomacha” by telling the Talmudic story of the aspiring ‘ger’ convert who approached Shammai and asked him to teach him all of the Torah while he stood on one foot. Shammai responded sharply, believing the man to be disrespectful and mocking of the process, and retorting that one cannot learn all of Torah while hopping on one foot. Yet we know that Shammai, while a man of tenacity and principle, also authored the directive of “havei mikbale et kul h’adam bisaver panim yafot” – of greeting all with warmth and a smile. Cleary, his sharp response of closing the door on this aspiring convert was not rudeness, but rather symbolic of his shutting down the misguided attitude of a quick and easy path to study or a shortcut for the complex and arduous process of Jewish education.
Chinuch presents with a new imperative in this Zoom fatigue milieu as our students must practice grit and resilience when confronted with remote learning – there simply are no obvious or standard solutions to the daily challenges they are now experiencing. We are deluding ourselves if we don’t address the elephant in the room and underscore that without a true teacher-student relationship, a genuine 3D learning experience, Torah education in this format is unsustainable. We are hopping on one foot proverbially even with daily check-ins, one-on-one phone calls, or Zoom sessions.
Importantly, when the same ger approached Hillel, he classically responded “vihavta liracha kamoacha ani Hashem.” Hillel perceived that the aspiring convert was not mocking the process of Torah education, but in fact sought a leg to stand on, a foundation for Torah study and mitzva observance. Hillel replied that the basis of our relationship with G-d is predicated upon emunah, faith in something larger than ourselves and the here and now. Our existential queries must be grounded in the eternity and universality of Torah as the collective inheritance and legacy of the Jewish nation.
As for our interpersonal relationships/mitzvot ben adam lichaveiro, Hillel guided us with pragmatism, by stating “ma disani elecha lichavercha lo taaavid” – that which you don’t want done to you, do not do onto others – for it is impossible to love your fellow as yourself. The passuk does not say את רעך but instead לרעך, which implies to or for your fellow. The Ibn Ezra explains that the concept being described is empathy, which is a meaningful and achievable שאיפה in our behavior and character, while loving another as much as ourselves is not.
This lockdown situation timed during Sefirat Haomer presents the wonderful opportunity for us to model empathy and perspective to our students and to our children collectively, as every parent is inherently a teacher and every teacher mutually a parent in the partnership of Torah education. We must teach them that if they don’t like being gossiped about behind their backs, they should take care with lashon hara and rechilut in their own social scenarios daily. If they don’t like when others touch their things without permission, they must be vigilant in their own actions, even – or perhaps especially – within their own families.
A few years ago I heard the keynote address at an ISTE (International Society of Technology Educators) conference in which the speaker brilliantly quipped that in the digital age there are two ways in which human beings are inherently superior to technology in the realm of education. Computers cannot be empathetic, while teachers must always be, nor can computers exude passion, an attribute with which our teachers must inspire our students in becoming future bnei aliyah.
Mrs. Miriam Gettinger has been a principal for the past 30 years, currently at the Hasten Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis and previously at the South Bend Hebrew Day School as well as at the helm of Bais Yaakov High School of Indiana. A graduate of Beth Jacob Teachers Institute of Jerusalem as well as Touro College, she has taught Limudei Kodesh to all ages from elementary to adult for over 40 years. Contact Mrs. Gettinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.