Key rule for teachers: Never, ever turn your back on a 6-year-old

Two years ago, my father came to watch me in action in my first-grade classroom at Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center. After two hours, he turned to me and said, “I don’t know how you do what you do!”

And the little voice inside my head said, “There are days I’m not sure why I do what I do.”

So I’ve given the question some thought, and I’ve come up with some answers.

How do I do it?

Well, I’ve mastered the three cardinal rules of teaching first grade:

  1. Consider first grade a runaway train — hang on or fall off. And I imagine that falling off must be pretty painful.
  2. Never, ever turn your back on a 6-year-old.
  3. Do not think for very long how or why you do something, or you might not be doing it too much longer.

In my first-grade world, where my students tell it like it is, I have been told the following:

“Morah Malka, you did not do your best work today.”

“You don’t look so good. Maybe you would like to lie down.”

“What do you mean there is no PE or library today. We have you all day?”

And, my all-time favorite: “Do you know how many little girls you are killing with such hard papers?”

But, I have also been told: “I love you like my mother” and “I wish you were my mother.”

“Every night before I go to sleep, I listen to your voice on the homework hotline. That is the last thing I hear before I go to sleep. I hear you, and I know that everything is going to be OK.”

So why do I teach?

Well, not many people get to start their day with 35 voices praying to Hashem. I call it my “Ta’am Gan Eden,” my taste of the world to come.

Why do I teach?

Because of a little boy named Eliezer, whom I found sitting under my desk, bemoaning the fact that he was never going to get married. His mother had told him the night before that if he did not learn how to read, no Jewish woman would ever love him.

And, as we sat together in the dark under my desk, we made a pact that I would do my best to teach him how to read, and he would do his best to learn. If all else failed, I told him, I would search to the ends of the earth to find him a girl who would marry him.

Seventeen years later, I received an invitation to Eliezer’s wedding. During high school, his family had moved to Israel, and he met a wonderful Israeli woman. There was a note inside, which read: “I knew exactly where to send this, because you are the type of teacher who loves doing what she does. I knew that you would still be doing it.”

There was also a note from his kallah, his bride: “You were right. I would have loved him even if he did not know how to read.”

So how do we teach?

With God-given strength and talent and a large dose of patience.

And why do we teach?

Just ask our students. They will tell it like it is!

Mona Riss, a 36-year educator, teaches first grade at Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center. This article is adapted from a speech she gave upon accepting a 2007 Jewish Educators Award from the Milken Family Foundation.