Atlanta Jewish Academy's Paul Oberman

Atlanta Jewish Academy’s Paul Oberman

By Dr. Paul Oberman

Not long ago, I participated in my first acting class at the Alliance Theatre. As I entered the classroom environment, I was reminded of all that it means to be a new student: the excitement, the nerves, the eagerness to learn, and the concern about how I will stack up compared with my classmates.

I also had a couple of other things on my mind that were somewhat unusual to my situation.

Because I had my kippah on, I wondered whether everyone would assume that I represented all observant Jews. Because I am recovering from toe surgery, I worried that my movement and participation would be hampered and/or painful. Finally, because this class is for working adults, it is fairly late in the evening, which I know is not my best time in terms of concentration.

The truth is that I signed up for this class for two primary reasons:

  • Because I am passionate about the theater and performing.
  • Because it’s important that, as a key leader at Atlanta Jewish Academy, I know firsthand what it’s like to be a student.

It’s especially relevant to be a student in an area where I do not already excel, as this is the situation our children find themselves in with some regularity. As Wendy Mogel explains in “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee,” high school is really the last time we expect expertise in every area.

Even though we would not ask our accountant questions about cell division or our doctor questions about integration by parts, we expect our children to excel across the board. Sometimes it’s just not that simple, as I was reminded again at my acting class.

Every student brings his or her own baggage (“My toe hurts. It’s late at night, and I am tired. Are my classmates professional actors? Boy, am I nervous!”) and sometimes questions his or her own abilities.

It’s too easy to sit back and say of our students, “He could do better if he only would.” In fact, as Ross Greene of Harvard Medical School reminds us, it’s usually the other way around: “He would do better if he only could” (Carol Ann Tomlinson, “Rising to the Challenge of Challenging Behavior,” Educational Leadership, October 2012).

As Mel Levine also reminds us in his book with the self-explanatory title “The Myth of Laziness,” students want to please and do their best, and students have a natural curiosity about things, so it’s too easy to simply say “s/he is lazy.”

All of which brings me back to my acting class. I was by no means the best, not even close. But the teacher singled me out briefly for kind words, and that made a difference.

For that moment, it felt as if the teacher understood that I was trying, that it didn’t necessarily come naturally, but that I was doing it. It reminded me yet again that “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care” (Theodore Roosevelt and others; italics mine).

I also got some nice feedback from classmates and was able to reciprocate as we worked together to learn something new.

By the time the school year starts, I will be able to reflect back on this class and the lessons I have learned anew about being a student. And don’t worry: I already have plans for my next class. I’m enrolled in a class on stand-up comedy and will be coming soon to an open mic near you.

Paul Oberman is the associate head of the Atlanta Jewish Academy Upper School. He came to Yeshiva Atlanta in 2010 as principal, became the head of school in 2011, and continued in his position after the merger of Yeshiva Atlanta and Greenfield Hebrew Academy into AJA. He has been a teacher and administrator at many schools, including Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut, Paideia School in Atlanta (where he was assistant junior high coordinator) and Pace Academy in Atlanta (where he was head of middle school). He believes in student ownership of education and is thrilled to be working with the wonderful educators at AJA.