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For the Sake of Student Learning: Putting Our Voices Aside

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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I'm a teacher, a mother, a wife, and a blogger. I also just happen to be Jewish. I work in a Title I school in a Los Angeles community that is not home to many Jewish people. It's primarily a Latino and Asian community, with the students in my middle school knowing far more about Moshi than Gefilte.

As this time of year approaches I inevitably mention my religion because I miss a couple of days here and there for the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and I like to give my students a heads up if I know that I'm going to be out. So it's also at this time of year that I think about my student of 'yore, Eduardo.

A Memorable Moment

Eduardo was a great kid, a student of great potential, but deep in the gang culture of the community around us. His cousins were recruited, his siblings were involved, and according to his writing journals, he didn't see a future that wasn't trapped by the walls formed by gang signs and colors.

Nevertheless, when he entered the classroom, it became his office. He brought a light of intelligence with him into every room and he used his power for good within our walls. He brought with him a sense of family and community longing that helped guide his behavior in the classroom. He wanted to help others, and he was a good leader. He wanted to know more about life. He gobbled lessons up, eating knowledge, reading books beneath his grade level, but wearing the sweat on his brow of someone working to better his circumstances.

But when he left the school site, he entered again a life that pulled him in a different direction. We caught glimpses of this life on campus based on his responses and how he communicated with others; but his inherent nature was that of a curious kid, a kid wanting to expand his world. So when I one day off-handedly mentioned that I was Jewish, it didn't surprise me that it was Eduardo's hand that shot up. That might signal a red flag to some, but unlike some other students, I knew there was not going to be any snark or sass behind that hand. Instead, there was going to be some kind of question that was genuine and brain expanding.

"Mrs. W? Do you have horns?" he asked. The tennis game of middle school heads began -- first to Eduardo, then to me.

I figured that one was safe to answer. "Nope. No horns," I said. Heads back to Eduardo.

"Can I say this word? Can I say 'hell?" he asked politely. Heads back to me.

I cocked my head, not sure where this was going. "Um, yes, I trust you're using it because there isn't a better way to say what you want to ask." Heads back to their student representative.

"Um. So, if you're Jewish, does that mean you're going to hell?" The heads all turned to me with mouths agape, but each clearly wondering the answer.

Those Leftfield Questions

Now, I was in a precarious position. The lesson I was learning is that just as Eduardo's world was getting bigger with every person he met outside his gang-family, so was my world getting bigger with every person I met who perhaps didn't know about my faith. However, as a teacher, it's vital that I don't negate lessons being taught at home, at least those surrounding his own faith. But this was tricky. I never thought of myself as someone who was going to hell, if indeed there is one at all. But clearly in his culture, they might be teaching otherwise.

So I thought about my goal as a teacher to create independent learners and thinkers, and I responded the only way I could. I said, "I'll let you decide that, Eduardo." He crossed his arms, nodded at me thoughtfully, and the tennis game came to an end. We continued on our merry way reading Gary Soto's short story, "Seventh Grade."

Being a teacher isn't about blowing a kid's beliefs out of the water by pretending my opinion is the authority opinion in the room. Being a teacher is about guiding them to find their own answers in as unbiased a way as possible. Case in point, I don't have political stickers on my car. The only sticker the students will ever see states, "I voted."

I try to let kids come to their own conclusions. It can be conflicting, but at times, the most powerful way to teach is demanding my own silence.

Months passed, and I received a call from my younger sister right before class. The class was filing in as I was jumping up and down excitedly with my cell phone at my ear. I said goodbye, the school bell rang, and my cheeks were still flushed with happiness when I began the lesson. Eduardo's voice spoke for all of them again.

"What's up, Mrs. W?" he asked.

"My sister just got engaged!" I said. "I'm so excited for her. He's a great guy."

Eduardo leaned his chair back and said, "Hey, Moztel Tov!"

I guess he came to his decision.

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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M. A. Hauck, M.Ed's picture
M. A. Hauck, M.Ed
Life Skills Support Teacher

"I'll let you decide that, Eduardo."

Heather, this is exactly the kind of wishy washy non-confrontational approach that just drives me mad. This kid could be being exposed to all types of horrific anti-Semitic tripe in his home environment. Just thinking Jews have horns, a rather antiquated insult, as you likely know, next to that old blood libel charge or the so-called ZOG conspiracy, is an opportunity to sit this kid down and give him a stern lecture on what Jews have had to endure for the last several thousand years and what they still have to endure today around the world via terrorist oppression and persecution.

I am sure if this kid had said something equally vile about Muslims that alarms would have gone off at the school and sensitivity trainers would have been called in to subject this kid to immediate brain reprogramming.

The inequity with how we place certain cultures on a higher plane of offensiveness-alert is simply appalling. I know this to be true because I pay very close attention to the news and take careful note of which groups are permitted to be routinely impugned without fear of reprisal and which groups are treated more delicately. It's sickening when traditional faiths are treated more disrespectfully.

And you, being a Jew, should never permit such distortions to exist within your sphere. You are not just a teacher, but a parental figure and a responsible adult figure. Clearly, Eduardo has a severe deficit in his life outside of your classroom. It's your job to set him straight.

Sorry, but sometimes, you've got to tell kids the difference between right and wrong. The egalitarian approach will only cause confusion.

K. McGuire's picture

Great story with an even greater message, Heather. As a devout Christian, I have been put in similar situations in my own classroom. I think that your message is important and translatable, especially during an election cycle. It may be difficult, but I believe putting our religion and politics aside for the sake of student learning is crucial. Our jobs are indeed political and we should be honest with ourselves about that fact. But sharing our personal politics with our students is a slippery slope. Of course, elections are a completely different animal that someone's salvation, but your article sparked this in my mind.

Shelley's picture

I agree with K. You showed immense compassion and wisdom to suspend your justifiable right to upbraid him about the insensitivity of his questions. Your ability to step outside of yourself-nonetheless a part of yourself that I assume is extremely sacred-took a lot of guts and wisdom. Even teachers have feelings.
I am so excited that your gentle approach appears to have made a positive impression on him. I feel strongly that Intelligent students of this generation who think deeply and observe intently aren't going to be satisfied with mere words, but rather by being provided with a respectful place where they can learn and grow in their own way (even when they are not always respectful). Evidently your actions and character have given way to his personal realization that indeed, you do not have horns. Your story gives me courage to hope, at the risk of appearing weak and 'wishy-washy,' that humility in teaching is in fact the strongest statement that we can make to our students if we hope for them to grow as thoughtful and open-minded citizens.

Carolyn Sexton's picture
Carolyn Sexton
Gifted Language Arts/Technology Teacher

As soon as you "sit that boy down" you will have lost him. He won't hear a single word of that "strong lecture" and you will have lost him for the rest of the year. I think you handled it beautifully!

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