Aaron Bregman is on summer break and looking forward to starting his fifth year as a Jewish history teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville. The 31-year-old Massachusetts native calls what he teaches “history with a Jewish twist.” He also teaches classes on the Holocaust, Israel, world Jewry, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Why did you decide to become a teacher?
There are two parts to it — being a history teacher and being an educator. Being an educator: because my brother grew up with special needs and it inspired me to help students with all sorts of backgrounds to be in the classroom. I also had in high school a few inspiring teachers who wanted me to be like them one day. So a combination of that with loving history and politics and it just kind of all came together as something I wanted to do.
Who was one teacher who influenced you?
Phil Sullivan was an English teacher, but then he became my guidance counselor, my soccer coach and my track coach. I credit him for getting me into college because school was important to me but I put a lot of other things before that. He kind of kicked my butt a little bit.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Danvers, Mass., 20 minutes north of Boston.
Did you go to a Jewish day school?
I did not. I went to Danvers public schools. But I was very involved in my synagogue and I did USY [the Conservative movement’s youth group] and I went to Jewish camp. I grew up in a very Jewish household. So even though I was the token Jew in Danvers, I supplemented a lot from what I did outside of school.
What’s teaching like in the digital age?
It’s tricky at times. Having [every] student with a computer, plus every student has a phone, it’s very difficult. I know some teachers now make students put their cellphones in a jar when they come into the classroom. Some teachers don’t let students use computers at all. Also, I think it comes with experience. It takes practice and experience to figure out how to utilize technology in a classroom. Also, you need to do a lot of research to figure out which sites work and which ones don’t.
Do you think having technology in the classroom is an asset?
It’s an asset. Today there is so much more pedagogically and experimentally that you can do with technology. I think it’s certainly a win-win. But the downside is making sure that kids understand the difference between looking at Facebook in class and figuring out how to utilize their time in the classroom.
Also I find that the downside to technology is [students] going home and spending three hours on work [they] could have spent one hour on, because an hour and a half is spent doing things other than being focused on their work. And kids don’t realize that because it’s just the reality that we live in.
What’s the biggest challenge of teaching high-schoolers?
I teach almost all 11th graders. I would say the most difficult balance is being a hard, rigorous teacher who challenges students and makes sure they are reaching the top of their potential, but also doesn’t push the limit. I have to understand that 11th graders have SATs, extracurriculars and, since we have dual curriculum, they have six or seven other classes and also personal things going on outside of high school. There is a lot to maintain there.
Especially applying to college today, things are so stressed that, as a teacher, I need to balance between being really structured and pushing kids, but also being able to be flexible and being able to talk to kids individually if they have a problem.
What’s the best part of being a teacher?
The best part for me is not only the subject I teach, it’s being able to open kids’ minds — it’s the coolest thing. Being able to sit back at the end of the school year and let the kids debate and see their own ideas for themselves. Also, being able to just be there for kids outside of a classroom environment, whether it is giving life advice, writing a college recommendation, having some sort of connection to their life and being able to be a role model. I think you can’t ask for anything better.