Growing up in the sixties I, along with my peers, were inundated with rules in school. We had to raise our hands and wait to be called on before we could speak in class. When the recess bell rang there was no such thing as rushing out of the classroom onto the playground. Under no circumstances could we run in the hallways. Rather we had to walk in straight lines and square our corners. The biggest rule of all, though, was how we addressed our teachers. It was always Mrs. or Miss or occasionally even Mr. with the last name added. We were never, ever allowed to call them “Teacher”. They had a name and it was disrespectful not to use it.
That was the sixties in America. Or at least in the America where I grew up. Two decades later I moved to Israel. After two years in the country there was a need for an English teacher in our local grammar school. I had a teaching certificate and I knew English. I was hired on the spot.
Teaching English as a second language is a lot different than teaching kindergarten. What I lacked in experience I made up for with eagerness to do a good job. My Hebrew was minimal and I’d been told that would be an advantage. The students would be forced to speak to me in English. So I entered the fifth grade classroom on my first day of work with lots of optimism.
As the principal escorted me in all the students rose in unison to greet her. She officially introduced me, although since Shilo was then a small village of only seventy families, I already knew most of the students. As soon as she left me on my own I began my lesson to introduce them to the English language.
It didn’t take long before one of the girls called out, without even raising her hand, “The teacher” trying to get my attention. I ignored her. Several minutes passed and another ten-year-old pulled the same stunt.
I abruptly stopped the lesson.
“What’s this “The teacher?” I asked with disdain, hands on my hips. “I have a name. Use it!” I’d been in Israel long enough to know it would be foolish to suggest they call me Mrs. Silvers. I told them I expected them to use my first name.
They stared at me in shock. It was only later that I learned “The teacher” is a title of respect. In less than ten minutes I’d thrown their deference to me out of the window. I’d lost my chance to be one of those legendary teachers like the one Sidney Poitier played in To Sir With Love or Mr. Holland as portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss.
Although I worked hard on lesson plans and fun classes I’d blown it being a disciplinarian. Not only that, the kids were not impressed that my Hebrew was minimal. They spoke to me in their native tongue and expected me to understand them. In time I did. In fact, I probably learned more Hebrew from them than they learned English from me.
Most of those students are grown now, married with families and degrees from various universities. In Israel it’s almost impossible to go on to higher education without a good knowledge of English. I’d like to think that I can take some credit for my former pupils’ accomplishments but, truth be told, they probably learned the language in spite of me, not because of me. Even though their school rules were totally different than the ones I grew up with they managed to get a good education and build successful lives. I’m proud of them.