At lectures and in online videos we hear the oft-repeated mantra “chinuch is all about love.” Yet veteran mechanchim speak out about a central component that is being neglected and how children need more than just love.
From Anash Magazine, published by Anash.org
It’s 4:05 PM and Rabbi Moishy Miller* has just said goodbye to his last group of students for the day, yet he makes no move to head home. A father of 7, Rabbi Miller tries to have dinner with his family when he can, but there are many days when he stays long after the final bell to encourage a lingering student, broach a concern with the principal, or communicate with a parent. Today is one of them.
At the agreed upon time, Rabbi Miller dials Shloimy Cohen’s* parents’ number, feeling nervous, but hopeful. Such meetings are never easy, but he’s helped other students through similar situations and he’s learned a lot over the years. He knows he can help Shloimy’s parents find the resources to help him thrive.
Unfortunately, the Cohens are not understanding of the situation. They feel that the school is not doing enough to accommodate Shloimy, and that Rabbi Miller’s suggestion to seek outside support is his way of fobbing off his responsibility as a teacher.
A few hours later, on the way home from Maariv, Rabbi Miller’s phone pings. As he opens the incoming WhatsApp message, his heart sinks. He doesn’t have to press play – he knows this video, can recite by memory the words this popular speaker seems to have seared into every parent’s mind and heart: “Our teachers don’t care. They don’t know how to handle anything other than cookie-cutter children. Our schools are failing our children.”
Rabbi Miller feels a familiar stab of frustration. The insult to himself, he can forgive. Mrs. Cohen is obviously in pain. But what about Shloimy? How will he ever get the support he needs if his parents don’t trust the advice of those who work with him in the classroom for hours every day?
Unfortunately, teachers and principals report that scenarios like this are not uncommon in our community.
“When highlighting the importance of love and connection, which the Rebbe explains is even more important in our generation, some take it to mean that we need to eliminate discipline altogether,” Rabbi Michoel Gourarie of Sydney, Australia told Anash.org. “There is an erroneous perspective that unconditional love alone will produce healthy children b’gashmius ub’ruchniyus. This is a fundamental and reactive mistake. Absence of love will, of course, prove completely ineffective. However, love without the foundations of kabalas ol, structure, self-control, respect for authority and basic healthy discipline – taught cleverly, with dignity and without harshness – will produce children who have trouble functioning.”
Rabbi Yosef Y. Simpson of the Lubavitcher Yeshiva has seen this throughout his decades as menahel as well. Neglecting academic growth while fostering love and acceptance can end up having the opposite effect, causing the child’s sense of achievement and self-confidence to plummet.
“In school, children come primarily to learn. Children’s Torah study itself has a positive effect,” Rabbi Simpson explained. “In addition, it is vital for the child’s development, self-esteem and sense of wellbeing. When the child can understand a posuk, when he can read and write, it gives him a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
“A rebbi must be able to reach every child in his class so that he understands what’s being taught on some level. The love, the warmth, and the kind smiles are essential to success and our mechanchim express it every day. But that on its own will not motivate students to remain in the system. They must experience academic success.”
Besides for the reasonable measure of discipline that every child needs in order to thrive, a classroom full of similarly aged children needs that much more discipline to offset chaos and allow for a productive atmosphere of learning. Parents often have a hard time imagining what it takes to hold a class.
“Children, especially boys, are energetic, and they need strong leadership to keep them focused,” one rebbi told Anash.org. “Of course, it must be accompanied by love and care, but to do away with discipline completely would be irresponsible.”
Rabbi Yitzchok Wolf, dean of the Chabad Cheder in Chicago, shared that the resources and reserves required to accommodate a classroom full of students is not understood by many.
“There are students who are struggling academically, and some who are struggling emotionally and behaviorally,” Rabbi Wolf told Anash.org. “Often, children who are experiencing difficult circumstances at home aren’t getting proper support and professional assistance. Where do these challenges play out? In school!
“Teachers must apply a tremendous amount of energy and resourcefulness to succeed with a typical class of 25 students, and yet they do it with love, dedication and care. At the same time, chinuch can’t run on love alone. Proper structure must be part of a teacher’s toolset to maximize students’ growth and character development.”
Rabbi Simpson marvels at the success that schools and the students within them enjoy nowadays, in spite of the above-mentioned challenges.
“The majority of children in our schools are doing exceptionally well, and it’s because teachers have the right approach to teaching, with varemkeit and love,” Rabbi Simpson said.
Unfortunately, principals say, a narrative about failing schools has been perpetuated by some parents of struggling children.
“There are in fact children in mainstream schools who are struggling,” Rabbi Simpson said. “Their parents often turn to well-known figures to share their pain and frustration with what they see as a failure on the part of the rebbi or yeshiva to accommodate their child. The messages shared by these speakers about showing love and lifting children up are important; in most cases, the teachers are already doing it! However, If they are not succeeding in their learning, the children will quickly notice it. Stress and feelings of failure will result in new challenges.
“Parents need to take an honest look at what support their children need but aren’t getting – whether it’s a tutor, an academic or medical assessment, or in some cases, a program that will suit their children’s unique needs.”
“The public speakers who are hearing these stories are people who have dedicated themselves to helping the klal,” said Rabbi Mendel Yusewitz of Ohr Menachem in Crown Heights, “and are educating and inspiring the masses toward conscious chinuch. Unfortunately, in an effort to validate parents in pain and ‘better-the-system’, they sometimes end up painting a broad narrative that is detrimental to chinuch. It leads to an unhealthy pattern of bashing of the chinuch system in op-eds and the like.”
Other teachers point out the lack of responsibility that most of these speakers carry. They can get up at an event or online and deliver a talk that may be interesting and entertaining, and then they’re gone. They don’t deal with the difficulties day-in and day-out.
“It’s not that what they are saying is untrue,” says Rabbi Shimon Hellinger, Rosh Yeshiva in Kingston, PA, “it’s just that it’s not the full picture. Of course, love must be the basis of any relationship, especially in our generation. But it’s irresponsible to leave parents with the feeling that all challenges will magically disappear and that work won’t be needed. Whether at home or at school, a combination of love and discipline will raise a child who is healthy, mature and responsible.”
Part of the mistake, Rabbi Gourarie explains, is that people confuse being ‘firm’ with being ‘harsh’. “Discipline must be done firmly but respectfully, and based on true care and love for the student. Harshness is destructive but firm discipline with clarity and unambiguity is critical and highly beneficial when it comes together with a high dose of love.”
The picture painted by a frustrated parent is a bleak one, indeed. My child’s rebbi doesn’t know how to teach, they lament. The school doesn’t know how to handle our children.
“If a parent believes from a deep place that the school doesn’t care about their children and that the teachers are failing, everything that the child hears and experiences from these mechanchim will have much less value,” Rabbi Yusewitz said. “In the end, the parent undermines the effectiveness of the very mechanchim whom they are entrusting with the most important shlichus – to educate their child.”
Ultimately, if a parent believes that a school or its teachers are underqualified or don’t care enough for their child, they must find a school that they can place their confidence in. Chinuch can only be effective when parents share the school’s values and respect the mechanchim.
“We have exceptionally talented teachers who are experienced at what they’re doing, yet when they share a suggestion with a parent, it gets thrown out because they’ve heard from ‘experts’ that the schools don’t care about their child and that the teachers don’t know how to deal with them. These teachers are working with children of this age group for hours every day, year after year, and experiencing success, yet parents will not take their valuable advice because of something they heard,” Rabbi Yusewitz said.
Rabbi Gavriel Levin of Postvile, Iowa, questions the qualifications of many who publicly challenge the system. “It’s worth noting that the people making these statements are often unfamiliar with what’s really happening in the classrooms they’re speaking of,” Rabbi Levin said. “They don’t understand the reality most teachers are facing, and often, their judgments are inaccurate.”
Ironically, he adds, “Those who speak loudest on this topic cry about the need for positive framing, for love and encouragement, and the consequences of rejection and pushing people away. Yet they go ahead and bash our dedicated teachers! When teachers are demoralized, students pay a price. It’s hard for teachers to throw themselves into their shlichus when harsh statements are being circulated claiming that they aren’t skilled or don’t care.”
Of course, teachers can make mistakes, and even the best teacher may not succeed in reaching every student despite their most valiant attempts. However, these mechanchim warn, if we continue to highlight and focus only on the system’s flaws, we may find that we no longer have a flawed system. Instead, we may lose the system entirely, and with it a whole generation of Yiddishe neshamos.
“In the current climate, is it hard to understand why our most successful are not coming back to teach?” Rabbi Yusewitz asked. “How many schools struggled to have all of their staff in place in time for opening day this year?”
Despite the many challenges faced by schools today, mechanchim say, our system is doing exceptionally well. Unfortunately, this success becomes threatened when schools are undermined by wholesale system bashing, which can turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“If we don’t take the bull by the horns, we’re going to lose a generation,” said Rabbi Wolf. “Not everyone can teach, but every parent needs to view the chinuch of this generation as their obligation to their own children. Enrolling children in school does not release parents of this obligation! It is not only an investment, it is also a partnership – one that requires parents to be on board with the school. And when the school reaches out, they must be ready to participate.
“In this age, being a partner with your children’s schools and teachers is not optional; their future depends on it!”
This article first appeared in Anash Magazine, published by Anash.org.