Pupils’ excellence begins with teachers

  • TeachersJustineSandler
What does it take to help a talented child to get a distinction in matric? And what support is needed to get a struggling pupil to cross that finish line?
by TALI FEINBERG | Jan 16, 2020

Teachers from Jewish schools across the country share the passion and effort they put into their craft. It’s clear is that our children are reaping the rewards of such dedicated educators.

For many, belief in their pupils’ ability is the biggest success factor. Mazal Sacks, the deputy principal and head of Hebrew at King David Linksfield (KDL), says, “I believe that one of the reasons I’m able to achieve excellence with my students is because I have high expectations of them, and consistently challenge them to do their best.

“As an educator, I continually strive to motivate and engage all my students, and refuse to believe that some are destined to do poorly. I’m always looking for new ways in which to assist any student who may be perceived as ‘weaker’, and I see it as my responsibility to never allow them to feel left behind,” she says.

“I believe that the onus is on me to unlock the potential of every one of my students, and this is where I place my effort and persistence. When they feel safe, they work well,” she says.

Dr Elizabeth Leaver, the head of English at King David Victory Park (KDVP), agrees. “A good teacher will inculcate a healthy sense of self-belief in her students, that they have the ability to do well, that they can cope. Similarly, the teacher must show her candidates that she herself believes in them, that she truly is of the opinion that they will fulfil their potential. If a student is aware that his or her teacher supports them, they invariably feel inspired and determined to live up to that teacher’s belief in them.”

Justine Sandler, the head of English at KDL, says “absolute investment and belief in a student’s potential is essential. Students who know I care about their holistic value are far more invested in working for themselves and for me. This relationship between teacher and student can change a student’s attitude and therefore performance.”

Caryn Bachrach and Caryn Horowitz run the Educational Support Programme at KDL. “Over the years, our ‘ed support’ students have demonstrated time and again that it is a mistake to underestimate a student’s potential,” they say. “Even though a student might be in this programme, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t capable of achieving distinctions in their matric year.”

They support the second success factor as one of an engaged and passionate teacher. “Students take their lead from the teacher; an indifferent, bored teacher will impart that indifference and boredom to her class,” says Dr Leaver. “The teacher must engage actively with the class, so that there is abundant discussion, argument, and debate. Students grow the most when they are listening to, and perhaps disagreeing with, their peers.”

Says Sacks, “I’m in love with teaching Hebrew. I believe that my students can feel my passion and energy. This encourages them too to fall in love with the subject, and drives them towards achieving their best possible outcome.”

Many of these teachers go beyond the call of duty, providing extra lessons, spending hours with their pupils to support and encourage them emotionally and academically, and being available any time of the day or night.

“I love each one of my students as if they were my own children,” says Ilana Flaum, the head of Mathematics and Grade 11 at Yeshiva College. “I believe students work for a teacher, not only a subject. For that reason, I make myself as caring, loving, and available as I possibly can. I open my home to them, any time of day or night, to come and study so I can help them if and when they need it. My phone is also always on, and students can message me whenever they have issues. The difference as to how I manage the range of academic strength lies in the extra work I give students.”

Teachers across the board say that practice, doing homework, working through past papers, and reaching small milestones are key to success. “This must include consistent homework, continually practicing their essay-writing skills, answering a variety of unseen comprehensions, and completing past papers, which I always insist are handed in to me for marking,” says Sacks.

“It’s like daily practice at the gym,” says Hana Makori, the head of Hebrew at Yeshiva College. “I often remind my pupils that drama is 99% hard work and 1% natural talent,” says Jacqui Meskin, the head of drama at Herzlia. “If they are passionate and driven, they will have a positive and fulfilling experience.”

Bev Bower, the deputy principal and head of accounting at KDL, says, “It’s imperative that students are taught from as early as Grade 9 to question and challenge subject content so they can complete their answers with understanding and depth. It’s also important that after every test, exam, or project, students review their errors to ensure they are not repeated.”

Heath Hull, the senior academic head, head of sciences and life sciences teacher at Yeshiva College, says that, “Learning is only a small part of the process required to get a good mark. Most of what is needed is application of their knowledge.”

Alon Cohen, the head of mathematics at Herzlia, says, “As with most things in life, maths can be a frightening mystery ... until you understand it. The look in a student’s eyes in that first moment of understanding is priceless, when, if only for a moment, maths fear is replaced with maths triumph and an immeasurable jump in confidence. My number one motto to all students, both weak and strong, is ‘the more you understand, the less you have to remember’.”

Teachers across the spectrum say that there are no shortcuts to achieving success in matric, be it a pass or distinctions. “Slow and steady wins the race. Work from the start, methodically, consistently, and as soon as an obstacle is encountered, reach out for help,” says Sandler.

“Setting goals with students assists in helping individual achieve their personal milestones,” says Bower. “If a pupil is really invested in the subject and this investment is nurtured and supported by parents and teachers, they will find their way through,” says Meskin.

Bachrach and Horwitz emphasise that, “Realistic and achievable goals are central to supporting a student who is struggling.”

Mandy Gruzd, the deputy head teaching and learning and head of history at KDVP says, “It’s critical that a student works consistently each and every day. I often say ‘baby steps’. My approach to teaching is often like that of running a marathon: having a passion and love for teaching, doing the research first, training slowly at first, building up strength, determination, skill, and ability. It needs constant practice and repetition. Then on the day of the marathon, so to speak, they are ready to fly.”

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