The Student Becomes the Teacher

by Rebecca Smallberg
For over twenty years my favorite photos have been black & white snapshots of my twin brother and me against the outside wall of our nursery school classroom. The photos were taken by one of my nursery school teachers and given as gifts to each family in the classroom. Below the photo there is a quote about what we want to be when we grow up. My brother said, “when I grow up I want to be a giraffe.” I wanted to become a princess.

On the other side of that exact wall where I once played with a basketball and dreamed of what I would grow up to be, I am now, two decades later, a teacher in that very room. In the same room where I once separated from my mom for the first time, I now help children with separation. In the same spot where I first learned about Jewish traditions and the values of hesed, mitzvot, and tikkun olam, I now teach those values to children. The walls have been repainted since I was a child. The name of the room has changed from a number, to a letter, to a color; now it is the Orange Room. However, the essence of the room remains the same. It is the space where Jewish identities begin to take shape. It is my “origin room” where my identity began to mold into place.

It is a room that I hold sacred, and I find it most poetic that I have returned, twenty years later, practicing those same values, now as the teacher. I am no longer the subject of the photo: rather, I find myself the photographer. Just as photography is an art, so is teaching. Effective teachers, especially in an early childhood setting, must have an innate ability to seize upon every moment in the classroom to help children begin to understand themselves in a larger context of others.

Though children may have few and fragmentary memories of their early years, it is not the specific memory, but the experience that is most important. I have only a handful of memories of my days in the ECC. I remember one of my teachers, Ethel, who I loved and with whom I now work! I remember my grandparents coming in for Shabbat. I remember the class guinea pig, Muffin. I do not remember learning about mitzvot explicitly. There is no lightning moment where I recall my Jewish values sinking into my consciousness.

As classroom teachers, we do not teach values in one big event or even one big curriculum; rather, we highlight and celebrate little moments throughout each day. When we call a child who is home sick, we say we are doing bikur holim. When we offer cookies to a classroom visitor, we emphasize hakhnasat orhim. When a child helps a friend, we describe it as a mitzvah. The values are floating within the walls of our classroom. As teachers, we celebrate the times when a child demonstrates a Jewish value on their own. We praise them and commend their efforts. We take photographs and document the occasion hoping that one day, when they are outside the Orange Room, they will abide by the same moral standards. One day nobody will be watching. No teacher will be applauding and there will be no exterior praise. We hope that we provided the foundations for the young child to grow into an adult who carries the values and the traditions with them.

Two decades later I still find artifacts from my nursery school experiences in my parents’s home. My mother still uses the pillows I stuffed at school for our Passover seder. She still lights candles in the half-broken Hanukkiah that I created from wood pieces. Every Friday night, she covers the challah with covers that I decorated those many years ago. She does not use these objects because she particularly likes their aesthetics; she does it as a way of acknowledging my early experiences in Judaism. Acknowledging and remembering our past is how we understand our present and plan for our future. Returning to our origins reminds us that we are who we are because of our past.

It has been over twenty years since I first learned many of the traditions surrounding the Jewish holidays and how to live with the values of tikkun olam and hesed. Twenty years have passed since I smiled for that beloved photograph. My brother did not become a giraffe, nor did I become a princess. I do not wear a crown and the eyes of a nation are not watching my every move. I am, however, aware of the responsibility of my title and the impressions that I will leave with each child with whom I interact.

I unfortunately do not remember the name of the teacher who captured my photo those many years ago. However I know that she took care of me, nurtured me, capitalized on the small moments of my days and laid the foundations for my growing Jewish identity. I know this with certainty because that is exactly what I do in the present. While the instruments we use may be different twenty years later – the cameras are now iPads – the job of an early childhood educator will always remain the same: to provide experiences that help a child begin to develop their personal identity.