“The first step of an educator in preparing for this highly responsible and holy work of education and guidance is introspection. He must examine himself more earnestly and vigorously than a private individual… (He) needs to review his methodology to ensure that it is characterized by extreme deliberation and politeness. He must attempt to find sayings that are appropriate for his lessons and communicate them pleasantly. In this way, the lessons will be engraved on the heart of a pupil, appearing before his eyes even after he leaves the presence of his educator… The benefits of education and guidance are accompanied by composure, politeness and pleasant speech – with befitting expressions.”
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn,
Ma’amar Klalei HaChinuch v’ Hadracha
At first glance, the above-cited advice from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe may seem rather obvious: appropriate communication, offered politely and pleasantly. The seasoned educator, however, will recognize in this deceptively simple mandate an enormous challenge. How do we, in fact, go beyond merely acknowledging these truths, and grow as educators to the point where we internalize, own, and genuinely embody these principles, day after day? In the classroom, as an administrator, and in mentoring teachers both new and experienced, I’ve found it useful to implement the Rebbe’s sage counsel in the form of these “seven C’s” for educators. The consummate teacher is Calm, Consistent, Careful, Committed, Cheerful, Compassionate…
and always ready to Celebrate.
Calm is strength. Teachers who are calm and composed radiate self control, and create a safe and positive environment. This allows children to focus and explore in an unfettered manner. On a deeper level, calmness nourishes a quality of simple faith that gives children room to grow in their spirituality. Faith is the cornerstone upon which all their future lessons will be built. Children learn that they can function effectively when they have faith, courage and love. Spiritually successful educators know that this is their priority; they model behavior that bespeaks bitachon.
Spirituality has been defined by a leading Jewish psychotherapist as the ability to bear discomfort with dignity. Many of us might say that it depends on the situation. However Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning, emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust to proclaim, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances,
to choose one’s own way.”
Our school days are not exactly comparable to the horrors Victor Frankl endured, but they are fraught with tension, often born of the need for quick decisions in the midst of conflict and power struggle. We view ourselves as soldiers in a war, with one of us against 20 of them. We have an agenda. Our students have another agenda. When we feel a loss of control or respect we feel threatened, nervous and insecure.
At such critical moments it can be helpful to take a secure thought that will support our resolve to maintain calm and keep things in perspective. Powerful, positive thoughts, known as affirmations, are a key tool for our continuing development as effective teachers. For the following specific affirmations, I am indebted to my friend and teacher, Dr. Miriam Adahan. Review them frequently, consider their implications, and commit them to memory – they will serve you well:
- Every moment of self-control builds self-respect.
- Many teachers are facing similar feelings and problems. I am not exceptional.
- This is distressing but not dangerous.
- I can handle it – Hashem wouldn’t give me a test I can’t pass.
- Since it is G-d’s will that this happen, it must be for my ultimate good.
- How will I feel about this in 10 years?
- Focus on solutions, not emotions.
- Messes are meant to be cleaned up and not emotionalized.
- Hashem wants progress, not perfection. We can’t expect all of our students to like us, enjoy the project, or succeed. We are not perfect and neither are they.
- Calm begets calm.
- (or… compose your own affirmations that speak to you!)
King Solomon explained that the words of sages are best heard when spoken calmly. The wisest of all men taught us what we all have experienced the hard way: that hysteria or shouting does not enter the heart as well as quiet words. “Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the bones.” [Mishlei, 16:24] This is echoed in the Ramban's "recipe" for rebuke: "You should speak gently; (using) soft speech and you should let it be known that (the rebuke) is stimulated by love and concern.”
When we change the rules or bend the rules often, it is rarely for the child’s benefit. Routine, although it should not be rigid, leaves room for freedom to navigate within the expected, like an emotional GPS. The child who has a sense of what is coming next has more control over situations. This security of knowing what is next is very empowering when coupled with the ability to solve problems and to brainstorm. Imagine what it is like for a three year old to leave the security of home and come to a place with a different set of rules, or for that matter, an adolescent who changes so much himself that he hardly recognizes himself each morning in the mirror. Keep it simple, and take the extra time to engage students in conversations about the rules. Positively reinforce students for keeping the rules, even the simplest ones. Why do we need to do things differently in school? What do you need from other students to make you feel safe and happy? In addition to the non- negotiable seder of the week, it would be ideal to have a goal or project that the students can plan. Let them vote, give them a voice. At home most toddlers are dictators. And we don’t need to speak about the demands of teenagers. The democratic method can be used, but not overused, in the classroom. Choice encourages the development of emotional intelligence. So does responsibility. Make sure that everyone has a job. And make sure that they are acknowledged for their contributions. Let them feel needed and important. Help students gain a sense of responsibility for the physical world. This sense of responsibility for the environment is important in building a respectful classroom.
To successfully convey this to children, it‘s of course necessary that we have a deep appreciation ourselves for attending to the mundane realities of an orderly environment. Consider the words of Nechama Greisman:
But let us examine for a minute what the servants of Hashem, the Kohanim, did in the Beis HaMikdash. They were the housekeepers. One of the important jobs in the Beis HaMikdash was to clean the menorah. Every day it had to be cleaned and prepared. Another job that was done in the Beis HaMikdash was the preparing and cooking of the menachos, the meal-offerings -- oil and flour and different kinds of frying pans, and so on, some for cooking, others for frying, and others for baking. Part of the avodah of the Kohen was cooking. It wasn't done by hired help. Another job -- because there were a lot of korbanos taking place in the Beis HaMikdash, it was constantly getting dirty. Some of the Kohanim washed the floors, and at times, even several times a day. And then there were Kohanim whose job was to check the firewood for the altar to see if it was rotted or wormy. If it was, it was possul and could not be used on the mizbe'ach. Others washed and mended the garments which the Kohanim wore for their service. And there was plenty. It was all done by the Kohanim themselves. Balabatishkeit if you will. But they did it all. None of this, "I-wish-I-could-hire-someone-to-do-it-and-I-could-go-and-do-something-spiritual" stuff. They knew that by keeping Hashem's House, this was the highest type of avodah.
The Nechoma Greisman Anthology
Repeat routines in a way that is dependable, but not rigid. The repetitive nature of tefilah, and songs, and the 12 posukim, helps students to feel secure. So do predictable schedules, and cues that define expectations. “When I clap my hands three times it means that everyone’s eyes are on the teacher. Whenever I clap my hands like this (CLAP CLAP CLAP) please stop what you are doing for just a moment, don’t say a word, and look here.” Be sure to clarify expectations. What does it mean to clean the room? Make sure children are aware of their chores. Take the time to model what you expect so you don’t wind up with misunderstandings.
Consistency also comes through in the way values are presented to your students. Don’t be afraid to declare that something is wrong or unfair. Just make sure to separate the deed from the doer. “What you did isn’t right. But we can replay the scene. This time you’ll do it the right way. I’ve watched you learn from your mistakes before.” That clarity of values paves the way for clarity of action. At the same time, be careful to give the benefit of the doubt. Assume that your student is doing the best he can with the tools he has. Try to catch students in the act of doing the right thing. Keep the proportions of praise to criticism at least 10 to 1.
We manifest care when we believe that our every word and action have an effect on our students and on the environment. It is caring that is characterized by concern as well as careful attention to detail, nuance and intent. Remember that your words are the brushstrokes that paint a student’s self image. The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that the most important thing to teach a child is that there is “an Eye that sees, an Ear that hears, and that all our deeds are recorded in a book.” [Pirkei Avos] We need to be as aware of that in our own behavior as we expect our students to be. Although we try to model good behavior, we are imperfect, and sometimes we slip. A child finds it just as easy to pick up on what we don't want him to see, as that which we do – perhaps even easier. It could be said that the only way to ensure that our children will learn only good things from us is to become perfect ourselves. Or, as an alternative, we can let go of the unreasonable expectations we have for them. It is empowering to tell a child, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake. Baruch Hashem for tshuvah!”
In modeling the behavior we want our children to exhibit, we must be very careful of the subtle messages we are giving. We've all heard the anecdote of the father who lectured to his son on the virtues of honesty - minutes before avoiding an inconvenient phone call with the words "Tell him I'm not in..."
Tzvi Freeman echoes this principal in his personal compendium of the Rebbe’s teachings, Bringing Heaven Down to Earth: “The Rebbe spoke about the importance of giving children kind, non-predatory stuffed animals to play with, like sheep, deer, giraffes and such. What a child looks at in these delicate years has a permanent effect. And earlier still, life starts in the womb. Sing to the fetus good things and speak to it kind words.”
Sarcasm and negativity are pitfalls we must also work to avoid. Sometimes we are called upon to give academy award performances of patience and positive energy when on the inside we feel rage or judgment. Miriam Adahan said “It is far better to wear the insincere mask of acceptance or approval than the sincere mask of hatred or disgust.”
A Rav once lamented the state of disuse into which the phrase "not in front of the kids" had fallen. There was a time, he said, when a ten-year-old could understandably be called "innocent." Today, is there a fourth-grader who doesn't know all the shul politics, the intrigues on the board of the local day school, and which teacher is about to be fired? I have often been informed of what is about to happen at school because my five year old picked up a juicy morsel of information from a casual conversation of two teachers on the playground. Try to only speak positively about other children, teachers, school, upcoming yomim tovim and even the weather.
"...It is clear that through the example of others is a child educated and completed. Therefore, open your eyes and constantly watch what is seen by his eyes and heard by his ears. The place in which the child is found needs to be a holy place..."
These words of Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch were written over one hundred years ago. It is sobering, because he had the relatively harmless media of his day before him. What would he say to the range of influences now available to us? Make it clear to children that there is danger in the media. Try to gently discourage talk about television shows or movie stars. At the same time, try to avoid terms like “we don’t” – because maybe they do.
The Gemara warns us "not to promise a child something and fail to deliver, because he will learn to lie." We must be certain that everything we promise is both doable and appropriate. Our father Avraham taught us to say little and do much. It is easy to back ourselves into a position from which the only escape would be to go back on our word. Every new "change of rules," shows a child how little value our words really have.
The concept of the “emotional bank account” (EBA) is an apt metaphor, developed by the well-known management consultant Steven Covey. It gives us a benchmark to evaluate the amount of trust that has been built up in a relationship. When trust is high, communication is effective, instant and easy. Covey goes on to say that our most constant relationships - like marriage and parenting, and needless to say educating – require the most constant deposits.
There are automatic withdrawals from the emotional bank account that take place in your daily interactions, or in the students’ unarticulated perception of you, that you may not even know about. Be careful about the small details; small moments of sarcasm, discourtesies or disrespect. Be sure to keep commitments. There is probably no withdrawal from the EBA that is more costly than making a promise and not coming through.
Be careful not to make excuses for yourself. This opens the door wide to children who can’t bring in their homework because the fish ate it. It is better to surprise them with treats than to promise them something and not come through.
There are families where Shabbos is happily anticipated and joyously kept; where each opportunity to do a mitzvah is welcomed with smiles and open arms and no one complains about the cost or convenience. It is such a family that stands a good chance of successfully conveying the spirit and content of the Torah to its next generation. It is children of such a family who will continue to be found around the old dining room table long after they have built their own. The same is true of our classrooms. When planning your lessons make it a goal to include one activity that is really fun. Make your classroom an active happy place.
“Among the main biological changes in happiness is an increased activity in brain center that inhibits negative feelings and fosters an increase to available energy and a quieting of those that generate worrisome thought…This configuration offers the body a general rest as well as readiness and enthusiasm for whatever task is at hand and for striving toward a great variety of goals.”
- Daniel Goleman, Harvard University Press, Emotional Intelligence
My mechutan (my daughter-in-law’s father) Dovid Lazerson went to the Lubavitcher Rebbe before his wedding for an audience and a bracha. The Rebbe told him, “You should raise your family in a good mood, together with your wife.” At first he was disappointed. “Is that the most profound thing the Rebbe can tell me?” Now he treasures it. How many people have the ability to go through life in a good mood? And what could be more persuasive in guiding our children to follow in our footsteps? The Rebbe’s bracha has stood Dr. Lazerson in good stead - his constant smile and cheerful disposition have also earned him a place in the National Teachers’ Hall of Fame.
“Sometimes you don’t know whether to punish a child or to hug him. If you punish him when he needed a hug, you’ve made a serious mistake. But if you hug him when perhaps he should have been punished, you’ve just brought some extra love into the world.” [Tzvi Freeman, quoting The Rebbe]
Before the age of 7, assume that the child’s misbehavior is impulsive rather than intentional. It is average for young children to misbehave because they feel insecure or bored or overexcited, or simply because they are hungry or tired. Children sometimes push the envelope to test you and discover what the limits are, or to see if you will stand firm. Also, they may not know how to communicate their needs into words, because they haven’t had the practice. Give them the words to articulate their needs and feelings, and watch how the emotional barometer drops. Send them positive messages about who they are. “You were such a helpful partner to Mendy yesterday, I think you can find a way to end this fight be today.”Simultaneously, repeat in a manner that is assertive but not aggressive just what your expectations are.
It is also important to give students the ability to discuss what they have just learned. Even during circle time in preschool, children are old enough to reflect on what they just heard, thereby acquiring the ability to own the information. Have them turn to their “elbow partner” and tell them how they would feel if they were placed in a river in a basket. Keep it short and simple, but encourage them to think for themselves and to express it verbally. It is much easier for a child to share his thoughts with one child than with the whole circle, and the ‘elbow partner’ technique affords many students the opportunity to express themselves at the same time.
Sometimes the best deposit in the Emotional Bank Account is listening without judgment, without giving advice, and without inserting your own autobiography into the conversation. When you listen, work hard to validate the student’s feelings. Phrases like “That’s not so bad”, or “you’ll get over it” may be well intentioned, but what he really wants to hear is “Oooh, you must feel horrible about that!” One facet of the mitzvah of Ahavas Yisroel is making the necessary effort to share others’ joys and sorrows.
True compassion is contagious. Greet your student at the door by name, and with a warm smile. Take a minute to ask her how her day is going, or about the new baby in her family. Appoint a child to be a greeter along with you. Give him a special apron or hat, and teach him how to be endearing and kind, like you are.
Manifest integrity. One of the most effective ways to do this is to be loyal to those who are not present. When you defend those who are absent, you retain the trust of those who are present. Suppose you and a student are talking alone, and you were criticizing another child in a manner you wouldn’t do if she were there. What is the message? Hmmm, my teacher may be sweet to my face, but watch out when my back is turned!
As a principal and a teacher, I have found that the key to the ninety nine is the one – especially that obnoxious, demanding one that everyone knows is the troublemaker. The love and respect that you exhibit, with the compassionate way you treat that one child or student, communicates to all the others the love you have for them, as well.
Focus your energy on highlighting the good. Take the time to honor accomplishments, even small ones. The Chovos Ha’L’vavos encourages us to“see the smallest spiritual victory as enormous, so that you will want to continue.”
The Jewish people are called Yehudim – the people who praise, the ones who thank. Develop gratitude notebooks and gratitude hours. Encourage parents to ask their child to describe the happiest moment of the day. Help students to make a habit of acknowledging the good in each other. Children flourish with sincere praise. I have seen many children - and adults – transformed, simply because I acknowledged a strength they had. My sincere praise motivated them to keep trying, because someone acknowledged their goodness. They became baalei tshuva or artists or writers or honor students because they knew that someone thought they could do it. There are countless success stories that hinge upon the presence of a supportive teacher, an encouraging mother, an empowering friend. Find the time to spend a moment or two with each of your students every day. Become aware of their favorite color, their favorite food, their favorite story. The results will far surpass any fancy bulletin board or impressive art project you could conceive of creating. Walk the room. Circulate again and again. Don’t get caught up with projects that take up too much teacher time and leave students with a good view of your back. Give your students your full attention and enthusiasm.
Needless to say, you don’t have to do it alone. Get the parents involved. Research supports the notion that children experience an increase in enthusiasm and a greater desire to learn new things when they are accompanied by their parents or loved ones. According to Claire Venn, author of Teaching and Learning in Preschool, children develop and form new relationships more confidently with their parent by their side. Parents can act as bridge between the language of school and the language of home, and can clue you in to their children’s eccentricities. They in turn become aware of your goals and routines, and can more effectively extend your teachings into their homes. We all benefit from the consistency and mutual understanding that is developed. Having parents in school as volunteers on a rotating basis helps to insure their support of your program, and gives you more freedom in the classroom. Moreover, according to the most recent PEJE parent survey, it helps to insure that they will re-enroll their children in your school in the future. There is a direct correlation between the comfort level of the parent in the school and his decision to recommit his hard earned money to private Jewish education. This collaboration shouldn’t end in preschool. Parental involvement is a key to the success of any learning institution.
Give the parents a voice in planning holiday celebrations, siddur parties, graduations and field trips. They will think of wonderful things you never imagined. When you have their “buy-in,” you will gain their valued time and support.
Sometimes you will find that your best allies are grandparents. Generally they have a bit more free time and are excited to spend quality time with their grandchildren. Recently I met a grandmother while I was lecturing on a kosher cruise. She was taking her 15 year old granddaughter along with her on the ship. “I have eight of these, and four times a year I take off a week to go on a trip with one of them. We have built the most incredible relationships. I only wish I had been smart enough to do it with my own children.”
So these are the seven C’s: Calm , Consistency, Care, Commitment, Cheer, Compassion… and always being ready to Celebrate (“Tuv lev mishteh tamid” - Proverbs). I hope they serve to provide a concrete, concise, credible, and crystal-clear benefit to you in your holy work.