A Tale of Two Tour Guides
Allison is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship, Class XIV, and a Jewish Educator. She is currently working with a fellow Class XIV Graduate Fellowship alumna, Orit Kent, on the Beit Midrash Research Project at Brandeis University, developing, researching, and teaching a “Havruta-Inspired Pedagogy.” Allison can be reached at email@example.com.
Last month I made what felt like a triumphant return to Israel after too many years. This time I went with my extended family, as a mother, a wife, a cousin, and a daughter-in- law as well as a professional Jewish educator. Returning to Israel was also a return to myself–a younger, pre-family, pre-professional version of myself–when I was simply (and in retrospect it was simple) a daughter, a sister, and a friend. Not only did I walk again in the footsteps of my ancestors, but I walked again in the footsteps of my earlier life. I returned to some of the foundational experiences that make me who I am as Jew, connected to my history and peoplehood, but also to who I am as an individual, reaching back to my adolescence and my own formation of self. I remember what it felt like to hike Masada at sunrise with my peers at 16 years old; and later on Year Course when my friends and I self-consciously pushed to come into our own through our relationships with Israel and one another; and yet again in college, already educationally-minded, as a madricha guiding other 16 year olds, and yet again at 24, etc. And now I climb again at almost 40, trailing behind my 7 year old whose own triumph of being the first of our party to make it to the top was evident in his flushed and radiant face. Ascending Masada this time was a cumulative hike snaking over the dust of older footsteps all the while forming fresh footprints; it was the best kind of nostalgia because it was mixed with the promise of new experience.
Imagine my distress then, when the tour guide assigned to this once-in-a-lifetime extended family trip what was really awful. Standing in Ein Gedi, my soft-spoken and bright-faced 14 year old nephew asked our guide about where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Our guide seized this moment… to express frustration: “I already showed you Qumran when we were driving here! If you weren’t paying attention, then what can we do?”
Personally, I experienced this response as painful; as an educator, the guide’s response was excruciating.
As an educator and teacher-educator, I look at much of the world through the lens of relational models of education. Picture triangle diagrams delineating core relationships among teacher, students, and subject matter, all infused with context. I could not help but train my triangle sight right on this guy and aim. Attempting to remain positive, I decided to try to make a connection with this man [read: student to teacher relationship]. A bit further along the Ein Gedi path, I asked, “So, guide-who-shall-not- be-named, are there parts of Israel that you especially love taking people through? What are your favorite places?” [Read: teacher to content relationship.] His response was gruff and brief: “I don’t have favorites. I guess the Galilee is pretty.” End of conversation.
My attempt to identify one strength on which to build–his own relationship with Israel, to the content–proved to be fruitless. This was a guide who, for whatever reason at this time, was not available for relationship–not with us, not with Israel, not with our immediate context. To be sure, he was extremely knowledgeable, and his English was impeccable. But he wouldn’t or couldn’t, “join self, student, and subject matter in relationship” (Parker Palmer). He, therefore, could not do the job of teacher or guide.
In blessed contrast, we were lucky enough to be guided through the Western Wall Excavations by a young man, who with equal parts gentle enthusiasm and reverence explained the history, archeology, and spirit of this most amazing site. He did explain what we were seeing, what we can’t yet see, and what we should imagine in order to appreciate the form and significance of this place. His explanation consisted of information but it also provided a frame–a frame for experience and the possibility of relationship. His real gift as a guide came when we were about to take the long, narrow walk against the previously hidden extent of the kotel. He told us, “Everything I have said up until now you can read in books. The real reason why you are here is to experience this place for yourself. So, I recommend that as you walk, you touch the stones and really feel them; and so that you can fully appreciate this time, I suggest that you walk in silence until you reach the end.”
Unlike our first guide, this one understood his role as the convener of self, subject, students, and context. He knew to ask himself, on some level, the question I strive to ask when I am the teacher and the question I offer to the teachers with whom I work: What do my students need me for at this particular time and place? In order to answer this question as educators we need to know ourselves as much as we know our subject and students. In this case, our guide knew that what we needed him for was to initiate and safeguard the opportunity for connecting personally to this physical place. We needed him to step aside, only after giving us the knowledge and tools we required, to have a direct encounter with the stone text before us. It was because of this deliberately carved-out time and excavated space, that we could learn what books can’t quite teach us, but that a guide and a teacher can help to facilitate.
Because of the experience he afforded us, when we arrived at the end of the tunnel to meet the actual stones of the Jerusalem street of 2000 years ago, he was able to say, “You are now standing on the very stones upon which Rabbis Hillel and Shammai walked.” And we were able to add, in the quiet of our inner experience, “and this is too the place where I walked.” As my almost 40 self.
If we want to strengthen Jewish education, we need to raise up the kind of “tour guides” who understand how to invite the stones to breathe with us; who know how to join our own new footsteps with those that linger still on the paths of our people as well as the layers of our growing selves. To do this we must invest in the inner lives of our teachers and speak the language of relationship. For good teaching can be learned, but it is an “adaptive” challenge, not a “technical” one. Lucky for us we have already built into our own tradition many paths to do this deep work. We need to take the time to rediscover and walk these paths with one another over and over again.