Miša Jakobas has retired as principal of the Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium in Vilnius. Lithuanian public radio and television conducted the following in-depth interview with him about education, life and his thoughts about the future.
Miša Jakobas Talks about Problems in Lithuanian Education after Leaving Jewish Gymnasium
by Aida Murauskaitė, LRT.lt
At the beginning of January the former Sholem Aleichem ORT Gymnasium principal and mathematics teacher took on a new job having nothing in common with the school, except that it does have something in common with Jews and math. He is now the executive director of the Lithuanian-Israeli Chamber of Commerce.
After half of a century you have left your job as teacher and the gymnasium which you yourself established three decades ago. How did you come to this decision?
The decision came to fruition last September, when I already wanted to quit the school. But I felt a responsibility, I understood that that was a complicated time because the school year had just begun, so I refrained. I left the school on the last day of the year, December 31.
Nonetheless, I’m 70, I’m not a young man anymore. I have lived a lot of life. I will be frank with you: I felt that sometimes I was repeating my thoughts, I realized I had said this or that before. Being self-critical, I thought, maybe I’m no longer being interesting? The greatest critics are your students, they remember much more than you yourself do.
I want to thank my children who appreciated, it seems, what we all accomplished under my leadership, who bid me farewell so nicely. I am very grateful to them.
Recently I met two of my students. I had a number of problems with them, they had come to my office quite a lot. One of them congratulated me so sincerely and wished me success. The other ran up to–I had never seen him smiling before–and shook my hand and smiled. I understood that despite everything he didn’t think of me as a stranger, I had imparted something to him.
Jews are famous for their aphorisms. What aphorism or saying would you use to characterize your current emotional state?
Jews, when, God forbid, a person dies, say: “He put the spoon down.” I interpret this saying in my own way and, leaving the school, I told my colleagues: “I have put the spoon down.” Understand: I am leaving, I have finished my work.
How will you live now, switching vehicles after a half-century of life?
You can’t imagine how many nice letters I’ve received and am receiving. I was moved by one parent’s letter. He wrote: “Dear principal, today I took my daughter to school and there was a light in your window. Unfortunately, a different person turned on that light.”
Another parent called and said: “I couldn’t believe you will leave, but it came true. You are a pedagogical icon.”
When I was preparing to depart, I told everyone I would be at home, I’d read more books and get out of bed when I want. I used to see a small smile on the face of the people to whom I said this, their eyes told me: that will never happen.
And it’s true. I said goodbye to school just a little while ago and I work somewhere else now. Since the beginning of January I am the director of the Lithuanian-Israel Chamber of Commerce.
I had several offers, but after considering them, I chose this path. I don’t know if any good will come of my work, but I will try, because I don’t know how to do a poor job.
This is very big challenge. I love Lithuania very much, and I say that without any pathos. And I really want these two states whose history is intertwined and sometimes quite similar to come closer together, that the stereotypes be broken.
For almost 50 years you’ve worked as a teacher. Why did you chose this career way back then?
Teachers, doctors and clerics belong to an exceptional stratum. According just to body language, facial expressions and even clothes you can guess that a person is a teacher.
I got lucky, I was taught by pedagogues from the time of Smetona. They were examples to my just in terms of the beauty of their speech, and they foresaw my future, telling me: “Miša, you can either be a teacher or an attorney.”
Why? First of all, and this is very important to a teacher, I stood out because of my speaking abilities, I wasn’t afraid of an audience.
I completed my studies in Šiauliai since this city is close to home, Telšiai. It was rather difficult to travel to Vilnius in 1967 because our family was having a hard time getting by. Besides which, I’m a homebody and a mama’s boy, I didn’t have the desire to run far away.
Today I can say a phrase I like, I am grateful to God and destiny that I was a teacher, that I because the principal of a Jewish gymnasium. I always wanted to do something good for everyone, something good for the Jewish people. It seems to me I succeeded in that.
I’m not a hero, but I’m proud the children of the Vilnius Jewish community have their own school where they can realize themselves and learn of their people and their culture and customs. When I was a child there was limited opportunity for this. I only received what my grandfather passed on to me. We were all locked in an iron cage, and that was painful, especially knowing how rich Jewish culture is and how much it has given to the world.
I am so glad Lithuania became independent, and it was only then we could all sigh in relief and become free. Jews living in Lithuania also became free.
Sometimes we criticize, we cry, we are dissatisfied by something, but we shouldn’t forget what was before, what we had then and what we have gained now in a relatively short time, 30 years.
The Jewish gymnasium was established along with Lithuanian independence. Did you ever have any doubts then that such a school was necessary?
Jews living in Lithuania thirsted for freedom. Freedom was a necessity for them. Some relatives had been deported to the Soviet Union and no longer lived in Lithuania. They became the object of exchange: when the Soviet Union made some agreement with America, then they used to say a portion of Jews would leave.
Our relatives became distant from us. We thought it would be like that. We were afflicted by the feeling we would never meet again. And the day dawned when we were all told: you are free. That’s when a miracle happened.
We Jews always discuss this. We talk when my sisters visit, I have two sisters, and my father who is 94 and whom I visit in Israel talks about it.
Jews lived in Smetona’s independent Lithuania and they were able to open businesses and to have their own schools and theaters. They didn’t forget what used to be after we were all locked up for 50 years.
We participated everywhere, at the parliament and raising flags. We are not a fifth column. Recently there has been a desire to equate all of us with NKVD agents, KGB agents, to talk about disloyalty to Lithuania. Some don’t like it, some don’t want us to live together as friends with Lithuanians.
When we were establishing the school there were all sorts of moods, will children come and if so who, what will we teach them, what language should be choose, Yiddish or Hebrew? But the most important thing was that in 1989 both the Vilnius and the Republican administrations supported us and said there must be a Jewish school in Lithuania. They supported us with buildings and books. No one ever told us “no” and no one shut the door on us.
At first adults also attended, they came for evening classes in Hebrew and history. At that time I was vice principal and Simas Levinas was the principal and director.
When I took over, we had twelve students, first graders. Gradually we grew to become a gymnasium.
It’s not just Jews who study at the Jewish gymnasium. When did the door open to other children from Vilnius?
Vilnius is not New York. You quickly hear who is doing what and where.
My vector was academic study, I don’t care about song, dance and the stage. I told my parents and my children that our way is academic study. This is an old Jewish tradition. I was a good student myself and I knew that homework came first, going outside came after that.
After some time, three or four years, when started teaching in Lithuanian. Until then the children had studied in Russian as the language of instruction. I realized clearly we were, after all, living in Lithuania, and the children had to integrate, and that it would be easier for them to enter higher education if they knew Lithuanian. I was able to convince the Jewish community living in Vilnius of this. Even though I, who had grown up in a small Lithuanian town, did receive a lot of sharp comments about this.
After we went over to teaching Lithuanian, changes took place, and slowly non-Jewish parents began bringing their children to us. They saw the friendly atmosphere and understood they could talk to the administration whenever they wanted. I was both principal and friend to the children, both severe and just. My students knew they had support.
Currently half the students are Jews and half are not.
Explain what the Jewish secret to learning is and how good results can be achieved in the schools.
I want to believe the stereotype of “the Jew and the book” is alive and well. All the more so since Jews have made such great and significant achievements in learning. They try. The parents of the children who attend our school are educated people who know the value of education. That has been very helpful to me in insuring the success of our students. That’s why our school has achieved good results.
Step by step everyday at every opportunity–at school, on the street, at the theater, at synagogue–I spoke about education. “Look, parent, child, there are problems.”
Every week I observed the progress indicators of all the children on the electronic daily record. I invited people in when I saw a problem. And the first question I asked in my office was, “What happened? Do your parents know about this? Have you thought about what is happening? How can I help you?”
Rules had to be followed in my office: there was no lying. I don’t lie to you, and you don’t have the right to lie to me. Tell the truth. My child, your parents and I will always help you, we will pull you out of any puddle. But you must tell the truth.
I am filled with sorrow education has so many problems. We have become estranged from one another and we don’t see beyond our own front yard, we don’t take responsibility for those who aren’t right in front of us. In my case that was 450 children, 50 teachers and an abundance of parents. This is a vast community and I couldn’t be apathetic towards them, to walk around with my eyes closed, or to just sit in my office.
I am perhaps one of only a few principals who watch over the school cafeteria. On Mondays and Tuesdays I put on a white robe and went to the cafeteria to make sure the children had time to eat. I watched them eat, I talk with them, I didn’t let them use their telephones when they were eating or let them read or do their home work. That’s how I was taught.
I remember I was sitting at the teachers’ table in the cafeteria. Lessons were already over for the day. A girl came in. She was planning to sit further away and I invited her to sit with me. Later she told her mother: “Mama, this was the best day ever, I had lunch with the principal.”
Will my hair fall out if I invited a student to sit with me? We talk about everyday things, what her mother does, when will she go home, whether classes are over for the day. That’s how you have that child, he or she won’t give you up, and if you ask him or her not to make so much noise, they’ll listen, because they are already your friend. We should all act like this instead of walking around all puffed up: we are principals, we are towers of wisdom.
Mr. Principal, say an encouraging word to the children, if a child is crying, hug him, and ask him what’s wrong. The school is a living organism, many things happen there.
The teacher must love people. He must be a person, he can’t confine himself to his own yard or greenhouse. It’s difficult, it’s expensive, but if you have the wish, a friend will loan you a book, and you will get to one concert or another anyway.
The teacher must know more than the children, and must be able to look the student in the eye, and only then will he be appealing, there will be an audience for him, and he can do something with that audience.
But if you stand there crammed up against the table, you won’t be interesting. They’ll be picking their noses by the end of class, picking their fingernails in the middle and just the first row will pretend to hear you.
The teacher has to inspire others, to burn and not to be afraid of burning up. To sacrifice himself for the children. It can’t be any other way. Because they, the children, are the country’s future, they will create the benefits and the products which you yourself will use in one way or another in the future.
There is much talk about the prestige of the teacher in Lithuania. The goal has been set to make this a prestigious profession by 2025. What does this prestige mean, in your opinion?
One of the reasons why I left the school was that people began disrespecting teachers. A society which allows itself to pour out accusations on teachers that they haven’t learned is sick. Who can heal it?
Of course we all make mistakes, and teachers aren’t any different. But let’s be able to forgive teachers some things. If a student trying to avoid responsibility blames a teacher, the parent shouldn’t hesitate to call the school and figure out what happened.
The teacher is now not devalued as dirt, he is devalued to a flooded basement. How he will get out of there, I don’t know. But there isn’t much time at all left until 2025. Will the teacher become that beacon of learning, will he really be that lighthouse which leads Lithuania to the right and moral path, it’s hard for me to say. I am filled with pessimism regarding this.
Parents aren’t getting involved, they think everything is already written and can be found in a google search. Interpersonal relationships aren’t learned on the internet, they have to be understood, felt in one’s life, they have to be experienced.
We hear a lot about poor learning results. Twenty-eight million lessons missed. Dear listeners, if such numbers were presented to the minister and ministerial clerks in any Western country, they would pull their hair and say: “What other results could there be with so many classes missed?”
But here you can go to school or not, parents take their children on vacation whenever they want. But my experience says that even a small part of a class missed, even a minute or a second, could determine your future. If you don’t pass the exam, your future is put on hold for a year, or even longer, because a year later the child might say he doesn’t want to study at all anymore.
During the day in spring the streets are full of children. Who let them out of school? Where is the accountability? Why aren’t we sounding the alarm about this? We try to blame the teacher, saying he’s bad. In truth it’s our attitude towards the school and the teacher who demands classes not be missed which is at fault.
What do parents say when you suggest they shouldn’t take children on vacation during the school year? They say that foolish old teacher doesn’t understand and why is he interfering with our family? Then when the child does poorly, when he doesn’t complete school, they blame the teachers.
I don’t know any poor teachers. There are those who are less successful, those for whom this sort of work isn’t appropriate. But I don’t believe there is an army of such people. At our school the teachers are good.
Young people aren’t choosing to go through teacher training. Is that hard for you to see?
If I were young I myself would say now, I won’t be a teacher. A young person wants to live today. When will he live? At the age of 70? A young person has greater needs. He wants to start a family, to see the world. He wants his wife to wear nice furs. Is that forbidden, is it bad to want that?
Thank you that there are these naïve people still who go to work un the schools.
I’m sure the selection of teachers should be very strict. But in that case, I say: Government, I want to earn something, let me earn something if I’ve gone through this difficult selection process.
Actually I can’t really say teachers make little money. There are those who make less.
Full interview in Lithuanian here.