Two Guiding Principles for Teachers As School Starts

Article by Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf: As the new school year approaches, a mix of hope and worry fills parents, mechanchim and teachers. As we stand on the edge of this new beginning, it’s crucial to pause and reflect.

By Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, Dean of Cheder Lubavitch Hebrew Day Schools in Chicago, Illinois

As the new school year approaches, a mix of hope and worry fills parents, mechanchim and teachers. As we stand on the edge of this new beginning, it’s crucial to pause and reflect. Have we truly attuned ourselves to understand the challenges and possible hurdles our students might face on their learning journeys?

The scope of our responsibility extends far beyond the confines of delivering a top-notch academic curriculum. In this difficult educational landscape, we must also address the pressing matters of social issues, mental health, and family-related challenges. It is our collective duty as a parent, mechanech/es to nurture not just the intellect, but the overall well-being of our Talmidim, ensuring they receive a holistic and balanced chinuch.

In light of these formidable challenges, permit me to offer two guiding principles that mechanchim/os should embrace wholeheartedly as they embark on this new school year.

Eager to learn the most potent means of igniting the flames of inspiration within his young talmidim, a newly appointed melamed sought the counsel of the Rebbe. The Rebbe’s response resonated deeply: “Be a role model to your talmidim.”

Indeed, in the world of children, there exists an array of potential role models, each contributing their unique brushstrokes to the canvas of a child’s character. However, the towering figures among these influences are undoubtedly parents and mechanchim/os. Children instinctively cast their eyes upward, seeking guidance and emulation, especially in navigating the complicated corridors of a Cheder/school experience.

A recently unveiled video captures a poignant moment where the Rebbe counsels a concerned individual yearning to draw his daughter closer to Yiddishkeit. His request for advice and blessing elicited a profound response: “Illuminate their path through living example.”

In the realm of early childhood, when hearts and minds are as malleable as clay, mechanchim/os and parents alike must don the mantle of role models, exemplifying not only the richness of Yiddishkeit but also the depth of menshlichkeit—the essence of being a mensch. It is through their actions and demeanor that the most potent form of indirect influence unfurls its wings.

The phrase “children learn by example” may have become an axiom as steadfast as cherished minhagim and traditions, but in real-life practice, we find that few parents or teachers confidently rely upon this seemingly ‘indirect’ pedagogical approach.

Yet, when the torchbearers of chinuch become paragons of virtue themselves, their influence becomes an unshakeable foundation upon which the young Neshamos entrusted to their care build their own understanding of the world. A rebbi who embodies the lessons he imparts, and a parent who lives out the principles he instills, carve a path illuminated by authenticity and wisdom.

This path guides the hearts of children towards a deeper and more profound grasp of the values of Yiddishkeit in our complex world. By serving as role models, they bestow upon their Talmidim/os and children not only knowledge but also the everlasting light of inspiration.

Another profoundly pivotal facet to highlight lies is the importance of genuinely and wholeheartedly comprehending the intricate challenges that our children, talmidim and talmidos grapple with on their transformative journeys.

In the recent Torah portion of Ki Seitzei, the Torah instructs us regarding the duty of a Yavam to marry the childless widow of his departed sibling and to rebuild his fallen brother’s household. The Torah begins with the words, “If brothers reside together, and one of them dies having no son, the dead man’s wife shall not marry an outsider.”

In his commentary, Rashi draws our attention to the very words, “If brothers reside together,” and explains that this posuk excludes a scenario wherein a man departs from this world, only for his sibling to be born subsequent to his passing. In such a circumstance, the widow of the deceased is precluded from uniting in marriage with this newly born brother of her late husband.

A more profound layer of interpretation unfurls before us, casting a light on the essence of these holy words. It is apparent that an inherent prerequisite for the Yavam’s obligation to materialize is his assimilation into the world of his sibling; an immersion so deep that he not only comprehends but embraces the very essence of his brother’s life. In essence, this posuk underscores that one can only contribute to the edifice of his brother’s legacy and ‘build his home’ if he is able to seamlessly adapt to his world, his reality. The Yavam, by intertwining his fate with that of his brother, embarks upon a sacred mission of resurrecting his brother’s lineage and building his home.

Similarly, a mechanech/es, whether a Melamed, Morah or Mashpia, can only effectively guide and nurture a young learner in his arduous journey if they meticulously fathom the intricate web of realities encompassing his life. To aid a Talmid or Talmida in overcoming their struggles, a mechanech/es must become a guardian of empathy, delving into the inner workings of their student’s world. Only through this deep-seated understanding can they truly contribute to the construction of the student’s intellectual and emotional dwelling, providing the necessary support and sustenance for their growth and ‘build their home’.

In both the Torah’s injunction and the pedagogical realm, the essence remains resolute: to aid in building the “home” of another, one must first become a part of their world, an intimate participant in their challenges and aspirations. Just as the Yavam’s commitment rests upon his profound assimilation into his brother’s existence, so does the role of the mechanech/es hinge upon the ability to comprehend and empathize with the diverse landscapes of their students’ lives. In this shared philosophy lies the timeless truth that by understanding and embracing another’s reality, we can wholeheartedly contribute to the construction of their personal and intellectual foundations.

May the New Year bring us much Nachas from our children, Talmidim and Talmidos and merit the coming of Moshiach Tzidkeinu NOW.

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  1. Beautiful and timely article! As the year begins, let me thank all the mechanchim and mechanchos for their incredibly hard work and their heartfelt tefillos for the success of their students. I now have grown children B”H and have learned and gained so, so much personally over the years because of all that you put into my kids!

    I was never a teacher, but from age 17 to19 I was a camp counselor a yovel ago, at a non-Lubavitcher summer camp. We actually needed to take training classes during the winter to prepare us to care for our campers. Once we were given our list of campers, we were also advised about their family backgrounds so we would be sensitive to their needs: Dina came from a warm, solid, wealthy family of six sisters, but her mother had passed away a few years earlier, and the father had remarried, and now she had two new little stepsisters. Dina was a deep, kind, generous, funny 9-year-old and an absolute joy, although she would become sad occasionally at rest hour and speak about her mother A”H. Knowing her background really helped me tune in, be a good listener, and help her have a great summer. Simcha’s parents were newly divorced, and that was difficult for her. She didn’t talk about it, although she was quite restless and misbehaved sometimes. There wasn’t really anything I could do for her, but at least knowing about her home life meant that I was kinder and gentler to her while disciplining her.

    Principals and teachers really need to KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON IN THE HOME LIFE OF THEIR STUDENTS, if at all possible. Did Tatty get laid off from his job? Does Mommy have insufficient help with a houseful of little kids? Of course, staffers need to be extremely careful not speak Lashon Hora or talk casually about family secrets, and they need to not treat any child as a nebbach case. They also shouldn’t try to play “therapist.” If the child needs help, get them to a professional, obviously. Hatzlacha to everyone in the New Year!

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