Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rabbinics 101: How to teach a class

[I can sympathize with this: Too Cool for Shul at Modern Uberdox]

I don't claim to be any sort of expert on teaching, but I have 15 years of experience in adult education across a pretty broad range of subjects and audiences at this point, and I do think I've absorbed some good lessons along the way. Here are four items, about presentation rather than content; feel free to add, or challenge, in the comments:

Make sure your enthusiasm is visible I learned this one when teaching a challenging, iyun series; after one class, one of the participants commented that I had clearly enjoyed that one. I realized then that I had not been very enthusiastic in presenting previous classes; I had been too caught up in the difficulty, and in insecurity about possibly making a mistake.

כמים הפנים אל הפנים, feelings are contagious. Human beings like to interact with human beings who are having a good time; people who seem stressed, tired or anxious make us feel likewise. Make sure people can see that you are having a good time.

And if you aren't having a good time, it's time to find out why and do something about it.

Over-prepare, but don't over-invest I am a strong believer in over-preparing, coming to class ready for tangents and questions that may never materialize; it's best to know the topic well, and have much more to say than you will ever get to voice. However, this comes with a risk – that we become attached to our content, on which we have worked so hard, and so we end up trying to cram in far more than we should. Our explanations lose clarity and our ideas are not expressed in a compelling way, and the result is a negative class experience. A rabbi should not become so invested in his material that he loses sight of the basic goal: Education.

And as anyone who has ever been in a class of mine knows, I violate this rule regularly.

I don't know, I'll check Never feel forced to answer a question on site; it's okay to do research and then get back to people, whether in matters of halachah, text, history or philosophy. This is also good because it generates post-class communication, which I find enhances the entire experience and helps create lasting relationships. It also demonstrates tangibly that the class is more than an intellectual exercise or fulfillment of a job responsibility; it matters.

Interactive! The people who come to classes may be doctors or lawyers or plumbers, teachers or mechanics or psychologists or accountants or businesspeople or middle managers or taxi drivers. Whoever they are, their lives are interactive – they are used to talking and listening and analyzing and responding and questioning and advising.

People may be accustomed to sitting in a movie for two hours or in front of a television for an hour, but human beings don't listen to other human beings talk at them for 45 minutes or an hour. Interactive is the key – icebreakers, questions, invitations to analyze.

What would you add?


  1. In Fall 1972, I was in training at the US Army ordnance officer basic course at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD.

    Artillery Captain McCoy made our class on the Army Supply Manual very dramatic and memorable. Holding the manual, McCoy jumped up onto his table and yelled out at the top of his lungs (rough paraphrase) THERE'S ONE THING YOU ABSOLUTELY NEED TO DO BEFORE TRYING TO USE THIS MANUAL: FIRST READ THE INSTRUCTIONS!

    This advice is pretty applicable in many areas of life.

  2. I would add: Don't forget to discuss HQBH!

    And another variant: Remember to attach what you're teaching to something the students can make a life's Mission Statement.

    You could sit in a gemara shiur for an entire year, and the only time G-d comes up is when He is named in a quotied pasuq.


  3. " human beings don't listen to other human beings talk at them for 45 minutes or an hour. "

    I disagree. It seems to me that teaching can be divided into two types.
    The first is teaching information and conveying a range of ideas, and it can be done in lecture format, as long as it is interesting, dynamic, enthusiastic. It is useful for conveying a great deal of information that the audience needs or appreciates, or presenting a theory or structure of thought (either someone else's or the speaker's own).
    The second is guiding students together through the process of learning. This is much more analytical, and covers much less ground. The emphasis is on the process of learning, of discovering the material afresh.

    Both have advantages and disadvantages. I have used both styles in the past successfully; I have also botched both styles more than I would like to admit.



  4. Hello R' Michael,

    Thanks for your comment. There are always exceptions, but my general rule would be to avoid 45-60 minutes of lecture, no matter how dynamic and enthusiastic. Even punctuating every several minutes with questions designed to elicit summary and lead to the next step would be better, in my opinion.

  5. never talk down to an audience. always treat your audience with respect and expect that they might have a good idea you haven't thought of yourself.

  6. how about don't make the mistake of thinking that learning and teaching are the same skill --they're not (though obviously they are related in certain ways).

  7. In addition to peppering the class with questions (as you mentioned that you do), it may be useful to follow up the lecture with a reading that either reinforces the learning or goes over a subtopic in more depth. Then the class may be able to integrate the material with something from their life or another topic previously discussed, assessed in a writing assignment.

  8. Anonymous 8:28 PM-
    Very true - although I find that thinking about the way I learn helps me find productive ways to teach.

    Thanks for commenting; very true. Unfortunately, synagogue adult education classes rarely attract people who have both the time and interest in working on the material outside of the time of the class itself, but your point is still well-taken. Several years ago, I taught a weekly Talmud class and was advised by a mentor of mine to institute review at the start of each class. I beleve it did help.

  9. Yes, you are probably doing all that can be done in this venue-a synogogue class. Kol tuv--I hope your students wish to learn with the same enthusiasm as you bring to your teaching!