Monday, April 07, 2014

No Child Left Behind - A Jewish Value

Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark
Last year, Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark (Dean of Beth Jacob Seminary of Montreal)  wrote an article in Mishpacha Magazine (which I commented on) about drawing lines. In it he made the point that even though there ought to be unconditional love for an OTD (Off the Derech) child… even that had limits. If the doors to Teshuva are so locked that a parent feels that child will never come back, then you can basically show them the door. As I said at the time, that is not unconditional love. That is conditional love.

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, a master Mechanech himself - responded to this at the time as follows:
Having dealt firsthand with similar situations for over sixteen years, it is our very strong recommendation to parents that their message to their OTD child and his/her siblings be one of unconditional love with no exceptions. Love does not mean acceptance. It means that the place our children hold in our hearts is not diminished regardless of how much they disappoint or even hurt us.
I agree with him and disagree with Rabbi Aisenstrark… and at the time I questioned his value as a Mechanech.  I was assured by a Mechanech of note who knows him well that he was a master Mechanech. And he was indeed perplexed by his approach.

But in last week’s Mishpacha column (unavailable online), I have come to understand why Rabbi Aisenstrak is so well regarded. He has advocated an approach to Chinuch that I fully support, and one that is woefully under represented in the world of Orthodox Jewish education. I believe this is in large part responsible for much of the OTD phenomenon. What I am talking about is teaching to the brighter or more motivated students.

Many Rebbeim in the day schools and Yeshivos are frustrated by students who don’t listen, whose minds wander, or who simply don’t want to learn.  They feel like these students are a drag on the rest of the class. Almost every  class has one or more students like that. I know of one 8th grade Rebbe that actually tells the class at the beginning of the school year that those who don’t want to learn, that’s fine, just don’t disturb the class. And he teaches to the brighter or more motivated students.

I don’t know how many teachers there are that actually make that speech to their class. But I’m sure that this is in fact how many of the practice.

This is not Chinuch. It is instead a gross failure to execute his teaching duties properly. He is instead shirking his duty. Teachers like this are irresponsible and in my view they will have to shoulder the burden of responsibility (at least in part) for any child in their class who ‘falls through the cracks’ and goes OTD. In my view this is grounds for dismissal.

Rabbi Aisenstark admonishes Mechanchim who do not to teach to the entire class. They should not ignore anyone. And he goes a step further. He believes that it is the weaker children that deserve the real attention. Given a choice between teaching the bright more motivated children or the weaker ones, he should focus on the weaker ones. The more motivated students will do quite well without being the center of attention that they usually are.

If children don’t do well in school, if they are bored or think school is just too hard… they are going to end up hating it. They need to be engaged at whatever level they are capable of. Get the unmotivated ones motivated.

The students who need the attention the most are the ones whose egos have been destroyed by a lack of success in the schools. If you ignore those kids, the chances of them going OTD are exponentially increased. An informal survey conducted by one of his seminary classes found that  almost half (41%) of those who had negative feelings about the school ended up going OTD to one degree or another..

I unfortunately know students like that. They are from fine religious homes with good parents and exemplary siblings.  Yet they have gone OTD. And if you examine their scholastic history – you will find that they did not do well in school. They thus were ignored. And ended up hating the school… and the religiosity it represents to them. That is criminal.

Rabbi Aisenstark tells us that at a wedding not long ago, he saw an 18 year old pour himself an 8 ounce glass of alcohol and drink it as if it were water. And after a coke chaser, he filled up his 8 ounce glass with alcohol again.

This doesn’t man that every student that doesn’t succeed in school will become an alcoholic. But the image should be a wakeup call for that a kind of potential. Or worse.

What to do? In the short term he suggests that the parent body of any religious school system such as Torah U’Mesorah offer courses in how to teach to everyone. In the long term he says that the entire structure of Chinuch ought to be restructured. He suggest a think tank of senior Mechanchim sit down for whatever time it takes (day; weeks; years…)  to come up with ideas for change. Because the alternative – as is becoming evident – is dire.