Sunday, March 16, 2008

Response from a Charedi Principal

I received an e-mail communication from a Charedi Mechanech last week who wishes to remain anonymous. It was about my post on Chana’s terrible experience in her Bais Yaakov that resulted in her exiting the school and despising the teachers there to this very day years after she left.

Although This Mechanech insisted that the problem is not a Charedi one he agreed that that the situation could have been avoided. And that teachers need to be better trained in how to handle situations like Chana’s. He included a lengthy article that was published in various local publications and was also was presented and distributed at the Torah U’Mesorah convention in 2002.

Various prominent people there read it incuding Rav Shmuel Kaminetsky, Rav Maitsyahu Salomon, Rav Aharon Feldman, and Rabbi Orlowiek. All approved with Rav Kaminetasky going so far as trying to get the Jewish Observer to publish it.

They didn’t publish it because it was really suited more to Mechanchim and not their general readership. Neither will I partly because of its length but more importantly for the same reason the Jewish Observer didn’t.

But it is an important article because it does point out that there is a general problem in how to deal with students in ways that will not turn them off. I should make clear that I do not fully agree with everything he says because of Hashkafic differences.

I would add that the situations he describes are not exactly parallel to Chana’s. But I do want to excerpt some of it because it shows recognition that problems exist and suggests ways to better deal with them. Here now are those excerpts:

Recently, a teacher posed the following questions to American seminary students in Yerushalayim:

"If you had the option to be born again as a Jew or a Goy, which would you choose?", and "In your opinion, who has a more attractive and enjoyable lifestyle, Jews or Goyim?"

Unbelievably, nearly 70% of the respondents displayed misgivings about their own identity.

Recognizing that true spirituality can never be easily imposed, our priority should be to first demonstrate the beauty of Torah, and to insure that our students’ school experience is a positive one. Otherwise, we will be unable to encourage the difficult lifestyle changes we expect them to make.

Frequently, negativity is needlessly created in the implementation of school policy, especially in areas that are not critical to our children's development. A decision may be taken to punish that student, who may then lash out angrily or inappropriately. The principal now responds to this new outburst, and soon the original transgression becomes lost in a mountain of troubles.

True, school decorum is important, but we must first ascertain that disciplinary actions do not cause more harm than good. If our students are out of touch with the rules that govern their behavior, they see the imposition of restrictions as a foreign intrusion. In those instances, they often have no real sense of why their actions are wrong, and enforcement breeds unnecessary resentment.

All too often, we force our students to adhere to trivialities, brandishing our ability to punish them at will. Such actions, either in the classroom, or in the principal’s office, are antithetical to true Chinuch.

Teenagers rarely accept or reject Torah and Hashkafa for purely intellectual reasons. They first measure their personal regard for their teacher, and only afterwards do they agree to accept their words.

At the beginning of the semester, Devora interrupted the teacher's lesson with an impertinent comment. The teacher, who had been frustrated with his inability to reach this particular class of students, responded sarcastically, and with a hint of anger.

The next time this class met, Devora, insulted and embarrassed, had moved her seat to the very back of the classroom. For the balance of the school year, despite the teacher's many attempts at reconciliation, Devora participated only when prodded, and most often, put her head down throughout the shiur.

Experienced educators will find this story familiar. One ill-placed remark can easily spell the end of a teacher-student relationship, and in our present set of circumstances, it is the relationship that is the key, not the studies that are being recited.

Generally, our desire to preach is premature - if our students have connected with us, they will come to us for advice, and if they haven't, our words of encouragement often have the opposite effect. It is not our words of Torah that will win them over, but rather, our ability to connect with them in a deep and meaningful way.

It is a school’s responsibility to train its students to travel the right path, and it will succeed only by motivating them to make the right choices.

Often, complaints are expressed about students who are not performing up to par. The general impression is that if students are not behaving in ways that we hope for, it is because they are not being pushed hard enough. Let us therefore force them, and this will solve the problem.

This is an erroneous conception. Our goal is not to have students comply with the standards of behavior that we demand, but rather, to have our values assimilated by them and accepted as their own.

It is not obedience that we want, but inspiration.