The qualities of a great teacher

The qualities of a great teacher

What makes a great teacher? Are you better off with someone who knows the subject matter but has no teaching experience, or with someone who is an excellent teacher but will need to learn the subject matter?

There are similar questions in the business world. There are those who hold that management is a distinct discipline and someone trained in management skills — planning, budgeting, reporting, and so on — can manage any type of organization — sales, personnel, manufacturing, or finance. Others contend that a manager has to be skilled in the function her organization is performing; for example, someone managing an engineering department should have a background in engineering. Should you hire a management specialist who will need to learn the function or a functional specialist who will need to learn management?

As always, there is guidance in the Torah. Parashat Miketz continues the story of Joseph. Pharaoh has disturbing dreams, and his chief cupbearer tells him about the Hebrew slave who had accurately interpreted his dream when the cupbearer was in prison. Joseph is brought from prison and he not only interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, but also offers a plan to provide food for Egypt during the famine that will follow the seven years of plenty.

Pharaoh elevates Joseph to the position of viceroy and charges him with implementing the plan he has devised. And when the famine comes, Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy food, whereupon Joseph devises a test for the brothers who do not recognize him.

How does all this come about? After Joseph tells Pharaoh that his dreams about cows and grain signify seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, he says, “Accordingly, let Pharaoh find a man of discernment and wisdom (“navon v’hakham”) and set him over the land of Egypt.” The commentators ask, “Why both?” Why does the Torah use two words that mean pretty much the same thing?

Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain), for one, says that there is no redundancy here — the two words signify two distinct sets of skills. “Navon,” discerning, means someone who knows how to sustain Egypt with bread, how to distribute resources according to need, and how to sell the surplus to accumulate wealth for Pharaoh. That is, he needs to be a good administrator. “Hakham,” wise, means someone who knows how to store the produce so that it will not spoil. That is, he needs to know agriculture or perhaps botany.

The person who will lead the effort to save Egypt from the famine cannot be only a bureaucrat — someone who knows planning and administration — nor can he be only a farmer — someone who knows grain and its storage. He must be “navon v’hakham,” discerning and wise, a master of multiple skills, knowing how to deal with people and with produce.

A great teacher needs to know both teaching methods and the subject she is teaching. A great manager needs to know both management techniques and at least the basics of the function he is managing. Greatness requires knowledge that is both broad and deep.

Such people aren’t easy to find — but they’re certainly worth looking for.

Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.

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