Achieving Balance in Dealing with “Issues”

I have a confession to make: I never thought I would stay in chinuch this long. I started my career straight out of seminary, teaching limudei kodesh at the elementary level. In addition to that, I taught general studies in the afternoons after finishing my degree. I have taught every grade (except Grade 4, for some strange reason) from one to twelve and many diverse subjects both in kodesh and chol. I have taught in a broad range of schools: boys’, girls’, yeshivish, modern, public, private non-religious. You could say that I have seen it all: the good, the bad and everything in between.

I have to be honest. There were times I wanted out. I felt like I was trapped in a love-hate relationship. There was certainly much that I loved about chinuch. Unfortunately, on the other hand, there were things along the way that were frustrating, irritating and that made me very unhappy. But every time I thought about leaving the profession, an inner voice would pull me back. I often wondered what it was about chinuch that it had such a hold on me. What is it about teaching that makes it my life’s work and passion (as well as thousands of others worldwide)?

Henry Adams is quoted as saying that “a teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Perhaps there is an innate desire to influence and mold students, a wish to make a difference in a student’s life, not just to impart knowledge. When done well, this certainly gives meaning to one’s work in chinuch. To receive a letter from a student many years after he/she sat in your class thanking you for something you don’t even remember doing proves Mr. Adams is correct and makes teaching fulfilling.

I received such a letter a while ago from a former student now living in Eretz Yisroel where her husband is sitting and learning; she is a mother of few children already. She wrote in the letter how I once had a “sicha b’ivrit” in 8th grade after the yomim noraim. I was asking each student where they davened, how long davening took and other questions along this line… and the students had to answer in Hebrew aloud in front of the whole class.

This particular student’s father was a rabbi in a Conservative synagogue. She wrote in the letter that her heart was pounding because she was afraid I would ask her about the davening and the thought of admitting that she had to daven in a Conservative shul was mortifying. She said that when it was her turn, I switched gears and asked her about the ”mezeg ha’avir” (weather)! Truth be told, I did know her father was a Conservative rabbi, but I don’t even remember this particular incident. The point is that she remembered it and took the time to write to me many years after the fact.

A number of years ago Rabbi Yoel Kramer came to give a workshop to teachers in Toronto. He had us sit in a “ches” formation and then went around the room asking each participant to relate something about a teacher or principal that had left an impression on her for some special reason. I was in the last position. I listened as my colleagues told stories about teachers and principals who helped them and took interest in their lives during crises or just in general. I, though, could not think of one teacher in all of my schooling to say over a story about; there just wasn’t anyone who stood out in my memory.

This brings me to the real subject of this article. I would like to focus on what we call kids with “issues.” (Funny how words creep into our vocabulary e.g. ”whatever.”) What do we mean when we say a child has issues? It seems that this word is now a euphemism for a gamut of problems. We all have “issues” to deal with in life, some small, some large. When I was growing up, I didn’t know any children from divorced homes. “Drugs” was something the doctor gave you if you were sick. I didn’t hear the word “stress” growing up either. Perhaps these things existed but we certainly didn’t know about them. Today, though, seems to be very different, and our students often have to live with serious problems at a relatively young age.

“Issues”, affect children and young adults differently than adults. As teachers and administrators we often see the results in our schools and classrooms in the form of anger, misbehavior, withdrawal, sadness or crying.

How do we know when to step in? Should we step in? How to get to the root of the problem? What is the problem? How can a teacher/principal help? These are vexing questions that we should be thinking about and dealing with.

Most teachers are not trained in diagnosing emotional/mental problems. But when a child acts out of character, we cannot just ignore it. Is it just misbehavior, or is something else going on? It can be a very hard judgment call. Is the child crying for help? Or does that child want you to stay out of his/her life? If a teacher shows concern, will it be taken the right way? Will the parent resent a teacher probing? How involved should we become?

These questions plague me on a personal level as well as an administrator. When I was in 3rd grade my parents split up. Divorce in those years was practically unheard of, and I was having a very hard time. You could say that, if then were now, I would be considered a child with issues. I don’t remember the details but I must have acted up in class and my teacher hit me!! Apparently the teacher didn’t comprehend my misbehavior; she couldn’t connect the dots from what was going on in my home life to what she saw in the classroom I am certain that this would never happen in our schools today. But if we and our staff aren’t sensitized to the challenges our students might be facing, we too can (chas v’shalom) react inappropriately causing them additional, unwarranted pain.

Due to my personal experience as a young child, I have become increasingly attuned to signals of distress. But I am also aware that I am not a trained professional, and I must be very careful before I proceed in dealing with students who are exhibiting signs of stress. It is a fine balancing act to say the least.

I noticed one little girl looking extremely sad one day. I went over to her and asked her gently what was wrong. Naturally she said, “Nothing”. But a while later she came into my office and told me she wanted to talk to me. She then proceeded to tell me that she was “depressed.” I asked her if she knew what that word meant and clearly she did. Her story made me want to cry; it was really depressing. When she left my office, I was at a loss. I sat in my chair for a long time feeling the child’s pain. What could/should I do? (Actually I wanted to take her home with me!)

I started to make some inquiries and baruch Hashem I was able to get (with the parent’s approval) some professional help for her. As of the end of the school year, her attendance was more regular, and she seemed happier. I breathed a lot easier knowing that she was in a professional’s hands.
We all mean well, but trying to help students can sometimes backfire. A junior-high student, who was going through some personal crisis at home, reached out to one of her teachers and began an email correspondence after school hours with her (something her parents consented to). The teacher, out of sincere concern and feeling for her student, spent a lot of time talking to her in school and by email. One of the student’s parents began to resent the relationship, threatened the teacher and forbade the student from continuing this relationship with her teacher. The teacher was mortified, extremely hurt and confused. The student tried again and again to contact her teacher but the teacher had to stay clear, all the while knowing how badly the child needed help but there was no way to help her with an adversarial parent in the way.

Even in a situation where we can help the child with problems, the question arises as to how much sympathy and concern should be shown towards the student. If we let the student get away with doing work, excuse him/her from taking tests or doing assignments, because we have rachmanus, we can be in essence handicapping their growth.

I strongly believe that we must help the student learn how to overcome their personal circumstances, not to take advantage of them. Imagine that person falls into a deep hole in the ground. Every day someone comes and lowers food to him.

The person in the hole loses his motivation to climb out of the hole; everything is being served to him deep down in his hole. But if the one delivering the food were to pull it back just a bit, the person in the hole would then attempt to rise that little bit to reach his dinner and then a bit more and …well I’m sure you get the idea. We, as mechanchim, would do well to give our students the tools and motivation to help them overcome the pitfalls of life and show them that they can climb out of their personal “holes”.

Victor Frankl writes in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself and by so doing change himself. He may turn a personal tragedy into a triumph.”

Mechanchim who are mitzvah-observant know the art of chesed. We live it and breathe it every day. We must continuously work to improve the lives of our students with the love and understanding we would want for ourselves and for our own children.

This beautiful quotation from a noted influential thinker sums it all up: “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for soul of the child.”