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A Jewish Approach to Discipline

We’ve all been students in classrooms where a teacher makes remarks like the following:.

“Somebody must have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed this morning” or “I’m not surprised you forgot your homework. You’d probably forget your head if it wasn’t attached to your shoulders” or “You have the lowest score in the class!” We cringe because we can imagine the hurt and embarrassment the remarks have caused. We may even be pained that in the past we said something similar to our students.

We are taught that it is improper to insult another human being, hurt his/her feelings or cause psychological discomfort. Judaism, however, adds another dimension: the midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 24:7) teaches that each time you embarrass another human being, who is created “b’tzelem Elohim“—in God’s image—you diminish God, the creator of that human being.

The Talmud stresses the severity of the sin by stating that one who embarrasses another publicly, loses his/her share in the world to come.

It seems at times that these teachings are unknown or forgotten when it comes to teaching children. Words that one would never say to a colleague or friend are commonly said to them. Why is this so?

Teaching is a very challenging task. When teachers are overwhelmed, they can forget the spiritual basis of their calling. This means that the spiritual dimension must constantly be brought to a mindful state. Also, teachers can be frustrated if they lack the “tools” to deal effectively when children are difficult. Thus, we must ensure that teachers learn techniques to successfully manage their classrooms, techniques that avoid busha (shame).

Avoiding embarrassing a child does not mean she/he cannot be rebuked. We learn from Genesis 45:1-5, that Joseph does indeed rebuke his brothers for their dastardly behavior towards him, though only after he dismisses everyone present. In a busy classroom, we may not have the luxury of being in a private situation, but as much as is humanly possible, rebuking should be done in private. Let’s now focus on ways we can realistically discipline without busha in a typical classroom.

When a child exhibits a problematic behavior (e.g. poking his/her neighbor or talking at inappropriate times) one can simply ask the child if he/she will commit to a change of behavior. When respectfully given a request, a student often will cooperate.

It’s sometimes helpful to remind a student before class as to what is expected (e.g. “David, remember that you promised to use your pencil just for writing”). When rules continue to be broken, the next step is a warning. In a calm and firm voice, give students a choice between compliance or further consequences. Note that a warning is different than a threat. The latter is an aggressive challenge which can only lead to power struggles. Keep in mind though, for a warning to be effective, consequences must actually occur when needed. However, they should always be realistic. Constantly saying, for example, “I’m calling your parents” and not doing it, lets students know you are not serious. Announcing that students will have detention after school hours when a carpool driver needs to take several children home can cause both havoc and ill will. Principals and teachers must discuss together what proper “consequences” are for a particular school.

Sometimes it pays to inform the student that you will be observing to see if his/her behavior has improved and then give the student (and possibly parents) feedback on how well he/she did. This puts the student on notice that his/her behavior will be monitored. Giving a private signal (e.g. a hand gesture or a post-it quietly stuck to a desk) will let the student know when his/her behavior is out of line. Keep in mind that it’s more effective when the student works out beforehand with the teacher what the signal will be.

Reinforcement can communicate to students what you value. Catching them when they’re good sets a positive tone. Reinforcement works best when one praises the deed, not the person, and when it’s given for a real success or major effort. Students are good at sniffing out what’s phony.

The word “discipline” is often thought of as training to control or even to punish. However, I prefer the dictionary definition that defines discipline as “training that develops self-control or character.” There are times when one needs to discuss or even demonstrate to a student the behavior that is expected (e.g. “Here’s how I expect you to behave in assembly” or “Let’s practice doing a fire drill”). Whenever possible, encourage students to come up with their own solution to a behavior problem (e.g. “What can you do about all this name-calling?” or “How can we deal with the excessive noise in this classroom?”) so that they can take ownership of the problem and responsibility for solving it.

By speaking respectfully in an assertive voice, a teacher will also be modeling how she/he expects classmates to treat each other and will thus also be teaching “Ve’ahavta L’rei’akha Kamokha,” loving your neighbor as yourself. By encouraging problem-solving and collaboration, a teacher will be modeling important life skills that will help students achieve menschlechkeit behavior. A teacher will then be creating not just a classroom, but a “kehilla” – a community.

For Reconstructionist educators, creating community is very important. Therefore, discipline should not just be “top down” with only teachers stating their rules and expectations. Students themselves must take “ownership” and help create kehilla. They need to continuously assess whether their classroom atmosphere is conducive to learning.

Teachers in Reconstructionist schools must also respect each child for his or her uniqueness. In practical terms, this means that teachers need to discipline in different ways for different kinds of children.

Perhaps a child who frequently “acts out” finds a teacher ignoring his silly behavior, or a child who is used to arguing is confronted by a teacher who gives him or her a little reminder note as he or she enters the classroom. Perhaps an often ignored child would benefit from the constant monitoring of a behavioral modification system. Not only do different techniques work for different children, but sometimes one even has to try something else with the same child. By having a large repertoire of techniques, a teacher can better meet individual needs.

It goes without saying that discipline is not a substitute for good lesson plans. When students are actively engaged in learning, there is less misconduct. Excellent pedagogic skills go hand in hand with excellent classroom management skills.

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