05/30/2013 04:11 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2013

I Wish Someone Had Told Me I Talked Too Much: Missteps on the Path of Spiritual Growth

I wish someone had told me that I talked too much. It would have saved my students a lot of empty time.

I am a teacher. I fancy calling myself an educator. But in all of my teacher (and rabbinical) training, no one ever told me that the real education begins when I shut up.

They kept telling me the same three things:
  • Learn the material. Preferably, master it
  • Convey it clearly. Preferably with a bit of personality and humor
  • Share something personal (optional)
That is all good advice for getting ideas into the heads of students. And it is rewarding when they can recapitulate facts and know more about a subject because of me.

But after 20 years of teaching I've realized that any knowledge that doesn't enter their hearts will just be forgotten. I've forgotten whole years of material that I've taught! All the more so for the students.

I can get things into the minds of the students, but I can't get things into their hearts. That they have to do that for themselves.

What is the first step in helping the students bring knowledge into their hearts?

I've asked this question to countless educators and rabbis and usually it provokes a lengthy silence. The answer I give is this: The first thing an educator needs to do to evoke the heart and soul of students is to bring the knowledge into his/her own heart and soul.

It's not about mastering the subject, it's about being affected by it.

And then sharing that with the students. This means the educator has to be willing to become vulnerable, to be a real person, struggling with all of the things that real people struggle with, and cease playing a role (special call out to rabbis and clergy).

The second step is even harder: Shutting up.

The journey from "knowledge of the mind" to "wisdom of the heart" is just about the longest distance in the world. To help the students turn knowledge into wisdom, the teacher needs to allow them to personally process. Quietly, without judgment or agenda, the students must be given the time and space to reflect on how they personally interact with what is being learned. They can do this through writing, or drawing, or talking with a partner in confidentiality.

But the teacher must step aside. This needs to be formalized as part of the educational process, not left for homework on the students' time.

Shutting up. Oy. That was so hard for my ego. I loved being the center of attention. I loved having a captive audience for pontificating. I loved saying the occasional brilliant thing which would elicit "wows" from the group.

It was great for my ego, but not great for their education.

The closing of my mouth and listening to my own voice was a humbling experience. It was painful for me to realize that my conveying of the material was not the goal, but the springboard for their personal processing.

When I teach teachers now, one of the first principles I try to convey is: "Any teaching, without processing, never happened." It's just forgotten, very quickly.

And if this is true in a regular educational venue, how much more is this true for a setting which seeks to provide personal and spiritual growth?

Why didn't they tell me this in rabbinical school?

Did you ever meet a rabbi, educator or clergy who talked too much? Who's going to tell him or her?