Aiming for Confidence, not Certainty, in the Classroom

Rachel Petroff Kessler
April 19, 2012
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I was taught to live a life of balance – to be confident, but not cocky. Reflective, but not inactive. My parents and professors have tried to help to believe that I was talented and good at what I do, but also that there is always more to learn and ways to improve. That it is important to step back and look at the big picture, but also to step up and make things happen. I’ll be honest: I have not always been good at maintaining this balance. Taking seriously the notion that I can always learn and grow has at times led me to feel that I have nothing to offer. Efforts to combat this have led me to overcompensate, to think that the work I’m doing is AWESOME  and that there isn’t much that can be done to make it better (disclaimer: I rarely end up on this side. I am more the chronically under-confident type).

As I continue to grow as an educator, these are some truths I feel comfortable holding on to:

  • I can answer questions without having the answer
  • If I have no answers, all the more reason to celebrate the question
  • Following up and getting back to someone with more information about their question is a great way to build relationships by showing you were paying attention, you value their questions and their learning, and you care.

These are probably all things I could have told you were “true” after my first semester of graduate school, but it took time and practice for me to be able to make them an authentic part of my educational practice. I used to fear that saying, “I don’t know” was the quickest way to lose any authority I might have in the classroom. It initially seemed easier to give a pat and incomplete answer, even if I wasn’t completely comfortable with it, instead of trusting that my learners could handle some level of complexity and ambiguity. The idea of veering from a prepared lesson plan in order to explore emerging questions was unsettling. It took time to be confident that people wouldn’t think it was strange or off-putting that I remembered a question and followed up with them, but rather would be pleased and flattered (or at worst, surprised).

Jewish tradition is rich and multi-vocal, and to claim mastery of all its treasurers is a tremendous act of hubris. It is not my role to provide all the answers for those I have the privilege of learning with, but to walk with them as they try to make sense of the Jewish community and their place within it. The questions they ask, no matter how challenging, generally come from a yearning for deeper knowledge and understanding. Saying, “that is a great question, but I don’t know the answer off-hand” or “that is a big question. Here are some different ways that Jews from different communities might respond to it,” allows me to honor their questions and support their journeys while being authentic both to my Jewish self and the great diversity that exists within Judaism, even if that means admitting a gap in my knowledge, taking a lesson off-course, or offering more answers than my students ever bargained for.

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Rachel Petroff Kessler is the Family Educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Maryland. Originally from upstate New York, Rachel has worked as a Jewish educator in a variety of settings, including Hillel at Binghamton, Kutz: NFTY’s Campus for Reform Jewish Teens, and Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan. Rachel graduated from HUC-JIR’s New York School of Education in April 2010 with a Masters in Religious Education and was a summer fellow at Yeshivat Hadar in 2009.

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