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Hebrew Weakness as a Teaching Strength: Being a “Teacher of English”/”Student of Hebrew”

Today’s participant blog post comes from Ben Geselowitz, a participant of the Yahel Social Change Program. This group is living, learning and volunteering in the Ramat Eliyahu neighborhood of Rishon LeZion for 9 months this year.

When I began my volunteer placements, I feared that my limited Hebrew would prevent me from making a positive impact in the community. I was especially concerned about my teaching placements. How could I effectively teach English to beginner English speakers without knowledge of their native tongue? How could I effectively explain English grammatical structures without understanding the analogous structures in Hebrew?

However, I have discovered that my lack of Hebrew proficiency is at times a pedagogical strength. My lack of subject matter expertise has rendered impossible a vertical relationship in which, I, the teacher as authority figure impart knowledge of the English language upon passive students. Instead, I must frequently ask my students questions about the vocabulary and grammar of Hebrew. The process can be awkward and at times we resort to Google translate. Yet more often, through circuitous explanations and pantomime we are able to grapple toward mutual understanding, acquiring task based language skills in the process.

By necessity, my pedagogy has fulfilled several aspects of critical pedagogue Paolo Freire’s liberatory educational ideal. In a Yahel learning session on the teacher student relationship we read a passage from Friere describing “problem posing education”:

“Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.”

Working towards mutual understanding with my students has often been a dialogic process in which I simultaneously occupy the roles “teacher of English” and “learner of Hebrew.”

I believe that the youth of Ramat Eliyahu have felt empowered by the opportunity to teach me Hebrew, both inside and outside of school. Our Yahel readings on “empowerment” have emphasized that individuals and communities can feel disempowered by social work which minimizes the capacities of communities and treats them as the passive recipients of services. Giving help can restore a sense of personal and social efficacy to marginalized individuals. I have found that several of the community youths have felt empowered by the opportunity to teach me Hebrew. While volunteering at the community center’s youth space, I cracked open my Ulpaan book, expecting to be ignored by the youths while I took a quick study break. Instead waves of teens flocked to me offering Hebrew instruction“Anee moreh, ata talmid” proclaimed my new teacher, proudly trumpeting the reversal of the expected hierarchy and authority relationship.

Being taught Hebrew by my students has raised interesting and difficult questions. My lack of subject matter expertise necessitated a dialogic relationship with my students. How do I ensure that the learning process remains dialogic as my Hebrew skills outstrip my students’ English? And as an aspiring teacher, how do I practice problem-posing education in subjects in which I do have a degree of expertise? Being an English teacher/Hebrew learner has been a valuable standpoint from which to consider these important and challenging questions.

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