By Abby Kogan
My teaching experiences began in May of last year when my synagogue’s youth group was planning to do a joint tikkun leil Shavuot program with one of the synagogues in the neighborhood. They wanted teenagers to teach—not only to their peers, but to the adults there too. The theme chosen for the tikkun was supposed to draw in teenagers as well as adults. The topic was stories of #MeToo in the Tanakh—and I was very interested.
The story that I chose to prepare was Megillat Esther. I picked it because the story of Esther has always interested me, and I learned it in depth in my Navi class that year, as a freshman at Yeshiva University High School for Girls. Four other teenagers also volunteered to teach, and so the preparation began.
Each teenager was paired with a rabbi mentor to help prepare for the class, and I went to work right away. I looked through my notes to find sources that I wanted to present, and I thought of my outline of how I would teach it. Using Sefaria.org (see article by Sara Tillinger Wolkenfeld on page __), I was able to build a source sheet that I was proud of. I had practiced teaching the class to my parents, hoping to make sure everything went smoothly. Later that night I walked over to the synagogue and was a bundle of nerves. I was confident about my source sheet, but I was terrified at the prospect of teaching adults who might know more than I did. I was even more nervous when I was told that my time slot to teach was at 3:30 in the morning.
By the time my class rolled around, I had already eaten too much sugar to keep myself awake, and I had only about fifteen students, many of whom were teenagers trying their hardest to stay awake. I had been hoping for a more promising crowd, but this was the moment I was waiting for; I had worked so hard, prepared so much, and now was my chance to prove myself. I stood up in front of seven adults and eight teenagers and began to speak. At first, my voice was shaky, and my sentences were choppy, but as I continued to speak, my voice grew stronger and more confident. I was finding a good pace and asking engaging questions. I loved the topic that I was teaching and that was clear to my audience. I was the most awake I’d ever been at 3:30 in the morning. After my 45 minutes were up, I stepped down and took a seat, receiving many compliments from my friends and adults. I was on a high and so extremely proud of myself.
Teaching a Weekly Class
I thought that would be the last of my teaching, but during the summer in between my freshman and sophomore years, I was approached by the rabbi of my synagogue (who also happens to be my dad). At my synagogue, there are classes a half hour before minyan every day, taught by various members of the synagogue. The topics taught vary each day and are Tanakh, Mussar (ethics), Gemara, and Mishneh Torah. My dad informed me that the person who usually taught Mishneh Torah was stepping down, and he was looking for someone to fill the spot and thought of me. I was shocked. I asked him many questions and came up with many possible problems with my teaching: “I don’t know the material well enough.” “The adults won’t want to listen to some kid.” “I’m not even that good of a teacher.” My dad reassured me, telling me I would be fine. It was hard to believe because he’s my dad, and of course he would say that.
We prepared in advance, studied the material together, and worked on how I would structure my class. My dad was teaching another class at the same time as my class, so he wouldn’t be able to be there to support me. I was worried about my lack of guidance, but I went to the first class very optimistic. I realized how many familiar people had come to hear me speak, and I immediately loosened up. These were members of the synagogue whom I’ve known almost my whole life. I decided that I would treat them as equals, and hopefully they would treat me the same. My biggest fear was not being taken seriously because I was just 15 years old. I had nothing to worry about. All the people who came to my classes valued my knowledge on the subject and listened to me when I spoke; they respected me and enjoyed my classes. Although it carved out a big part of my “busy high schooler” week, I enjoyed teaching. That same sense of pride that I had felt after the tikkun filled me, and I was so glad to be able to teach in a place where I was respected and valued.
When Shavuot rolled around again, I was ready to spend another tikkun leil Shavuot with my youth group and even more ready to teach. I remembered my past experience fondly and was desperate to recreate it. Then I was told that the youth group tikkun leil Shavuot would not be taking place this year due to lack of participation. I was so disappointed. I wanted to teach and believed I was good at it. My dad realized my disappointment and asked if I would like to teach at our synagogue without the affiliation of the youth group. I was hesitant to agree. My fear was rising again. Teaching to adults was fine if it was through a program in which teens were encouraged to teach, or if it was a small group, but this was just me, on my own, teaching more than 75 people—and not just people, but adults.
My dad eventually convinced me, and I began to work on a source sheet once again. The theme of this tikkun was “Struggles, Setbacks, and Second Chances,” and I decided to teach the story of Esav and Ya’akov. Many of my teachers, family members, and even friends could tell you that I was fascinated by the story of Esav and Ya’akov, mainly because of the way the commentators depict them as villain and hero, respectively. From reading just the plain text, I had always thought that Esav was “in the right” and Ya’akov was very much “in the wrong.” Therefore, I was eager to research this idea further and be able to share my opinions with a larger crowd who would be listening to what I had to say. My class outline was written, and the day came. The synagogue was packed. I was so nervous that I couldn’t even eat dinner. I kept asking my dad questions about how I would teach so as to make sure my class was perfect. I had even done a practice presentation with my mom to make sure I stayed within my allotted 30-minute time frame. I had gone through the sources and questions a million times to make sure everything was exactly as I wanted it to be. I knew that I shouldn’t be nervous, but couldn’t help myself.
I went up to the podium and nervously began to speak. As I continued, my true self started to show through. My natural humor was present in my demeanor, though I continued to teach and discuss at a high level. I asked thoughtful questions and received insightful answers from the adults. I kept everyone engaged and interested. It was an amazing experience. I loved that I was able to command a room full of people, even though I’m only 16. I ended my class and received thundering applause, with nonstop compliments. Though it wasn’t necessary, this validation made me so proud of all the work that I had done. It was such a rewarding experience, and though I had my doubts, I don’t regret a thing. I loved it.
Always Wanted to Be a Teacher
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a teacher. However, I thought that to be a teacher, I would first need to go to school and get a degree, or at least grow up. I realized through these three experiences that no matter the age, no matter the setting, you can always be a teacher. I’ve been so privileged to have these positive experiences and opportunities. I’ve learned that, even at 16, I have knowledge that I can pass on to other people, and, though it might be difficult, I have reached a stage of maturity at which I can receive the respect of people older than I. When I was first asked to teach a class, my answer was, “You want me to teach?” It is now, “I’d love to! When and where?”
Abby Kogan is a junior at Yeshiva University High School for Girls, where she thoroughly enjoys her Talmud and Tanakh classes. In YUHSG, she is an assistant editor for her school’s newspaper. She looks forward to pursuing a career in education and loves to learn and teach whenever she can.
I was confident about my source sheet, but I was terrified at the prospect of teaching adults.
I’ve learned that, even at 16, I have knowledge that I can pass on to other people.