Teaching Students, Not Subjects

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16 Oct 2013

homeworkWalking into Bnos Yisroel in Baltimore, one sees a sign that reads, “Teaching Students, not Subjects.”  When the Baltimore Jewish Times reported on the school, they found that the school did much more than simply pay lip service to a sentiment many educators would be quick to say they support.  Rabbi Amster noted that at Bnos, that sense “permeates everything that we do…”

There are those who might argue that such a “soft” sentiment is fine for a girls yeshiva, but for boys?  For boys, one needs a stronger hand.

I would argue that in this regard there should be no difference between a girls and boys yeshiva.  Caring for students is the only way to educate all our young people.  Fortunately, despite the disturbing trend to hew an ever harder line with any student who does not strictly conform to a yeshiva’s academic and behavior standards, I am not alone in my belief that we do greater harm by our harsh rigidity than by treating each of our students as a precious treasure.

Every Jewish educator knows, without question, what we teach is vital.  Fewer seem to appreciate that who we teach is at least as much of a gift.

It would be understandable for the most preeminent Gadol to emphasize what we teach when he meets with mechanchim, rebbeim – educators – at the beginning of the new school year.  He undoubtedly wants to emphasize the educational issues and concerns that will confront his teachers –the core curriculum that is to be taught, the pace at which classes must proceed, what is to be accomplished during a z’man – but that was not the focus of the Gaon Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman’s recent talk with educators of yeshivot ketanot as the school year began.

According to “Chadrei Chareidim” (www.bhol.co.il), the Rav pleaded with the educators to keep in mind two thoughts as the new school year begins.  One, to continually relate to each and every student as a neshama, a pure and precious soul.  Two, to stop expelling students from yeshivas.

What kind of message is this to deliver to educators about to embark on a new school year?

Rav Shteinman continued in his talk by referring to Bava Kamma 62a, as he does in his recently published volume, “Leading with Love”.   The Talmudic passage is concerned with a man giving a woman a gold coin to hold but telling her, “Be careful with it for it is silver.”

Rava rules that, should she damage the coin, she would have to reimburse the man the full worth of the gold because the owner will rightly claim that, regardless of the actual worth of the coin, she should not have damaged it.  However, if the woman was merely negligent with the coin, she would be responsible only for the value of the silver, correctly claiming that she had only agreed to be responsible for a silver coin (netirusa d’dahava lo kabilsi alai) and not a gold one.

How are we to understand this passage?  To put the passage in more contemporary terms, suppose a man gave his friend a locked box to safeguard, telling him that it contained $10,000.  Such a sum is not to be taken lightly.  The friend would certainly guard it with great vigilance.  But what if the locked box did not contain $10,000 but rather $100,000?

What if the friend negligently left the box on the back seat of a taxi?  What would he say when he learned that he was responsible not for $10,000 but for $100,000?  He would surely protest that he had never agreed to be responsible for such a princely sum.  He would admit that $10,000 is a sum worthy of vigilance.  But $100,000?  That is another matter entirely.

“Had I known that there was $100,000 in the box, I’d have been even more vigilant!”

The Rav would find his claim that he is not liable for the additional $90,000 to be more than legitimate.  But what does all this have to do with our discussion of teachers and students?  Rav Shteinman suggests that, in a similar way, every single teacher, rebbi, principal of either boys or girls (equally so!) must fully understand exactly what is being entrusted to his safekeeping.

If a teacher thinks that his task is merely “to teach” – d’varim peshutim, a simple matter – that it is no great thing to teach, that “anybody can do that” he must immediately be set straight.   Children are neshamos; they are netirusa d’dahava.  They are more precious than gold.  Do not for a minute think that they are merely silver.  They are the most valuable possession of all klal Yisrael.

If a teacher is not able to take on the responsibility of safeguarding such treasure, he shouldn’t!  Before setting foot in a classroom, each and every teacher must be clear about the responsibility he are taking on, and the treasure that is being placed in his safekeeping.  He must know that to treat any child with less than netirusa d’dahava is negligence.

If each and every teacher is to safeguard his students with such care, how much more negligent is it to expel a student from yeshiva?  How much more negligent is it to treat such a soul in such a way that he or she will then “leave the fold”, remove his or herself from our community?

That teacher should not think for a minute that he will not be asked in the world to come, “Why did this young man or young woman leave the community?  Why is she no longer frum?  Why is he on drugs?”

What will that teacher answer?  What can he answer?

And in the gaping silence, he will be told, “if this was your own son, would you have thrown him out?  For that is what you should have thought at the time.  This is like your son, your son!

“Responsibility for children is just as for gold, not silver.  No!  Even more than gold!”

It is not enough to presume that because a child is attending yeshiva that he or she is safeguarded, that his or her home is filled with yiddishkeit or that they are treated with love and respect.  There is no guarantee.  That is why each talmid must we watched closely and with care.  The rebbi must be mindful of his charges; he must be mindful of everything.  More importantly, he must teach with love and compassion, with a pleasant and joyous countenance.  The way to treat students is with compassion and mercy not rigidity and anger.

When I met with the faculties I had the privilege to lead, I always shared with them a simple truth:  We all make mistakes.  To err is human.  And in almost every profession and circumstance, it is possible to make a mistake and then correct it.  We almost always have the chance to begin anew.  Except when it comes to a child or student we turned off by our negligence, inattention, or abuse!

It is on our heshbon to make the lessons sweet for our students; it is on our heshbon to safeguard our students.  We are not, after all, teaching stuff.  By transmitting the truths and jewels we teach, we are burnishing the links in a glorious chain.  We are touching souls, precious Jewish souls.

Without those souls, for whom is the knowledge worthwhile?

When we extinguish the flame of learning in a young soul, it is not easily – if ever – relit.  There very well may be no second chance.

There is no more important message a faculty can receive than to nurture that flame in every single student!  And yet, even when Rav Shteinman addressed his audience of hundreds of mechanchim – educators I can imagine that there were those who listened impassively, all the while thinking to themselves, “Okay, we get it about all the love, compassion, sensitivity, personalization blah, blah, blah.   It’s easy to talk about all that in the abstract.  What about those of us in the classroom?  What about us, the ones who have to deal with students who misbehave or act out?

“What about the student who is immersed in the Internet?” a rebbi asked the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Shteinman.

Such musings have merit, but it is astonishing to me how much of the ills of society are now blamed on the Internet.  Of course the Internet poses many dangers and challenges.  But, were there no problems before the Internet?

So, how might Rav Shteinman have responded to any of the possible questions leading to the question of what to do with such students?  Would he have quickly and resolutely determined, “Of course throw out the student immersed in Internet!  Of course throw out the student who acts out!”

Would he have considered that student to be no more than garbage needing to be removed from the building as expeditiously as possible?

Or would he have asked, like the recently deceased Rav Ovadya Yosef, the highly respected Gaon and leader of Sefardic Jewry, “Whom are you throwing out? A rock?  Some accumulated trash?”

Rav Ovadya Yosef ZT’L knew the challenge of teaching in a classroom.  When he confronted a rowdy, disruptive or uncooperative student in a class, he did not view the student as “the enemy” but rather as the unique being God intended.  He embraced the uniqueness of each of his students.  What an upside-down world we have created when Rav Ovadya’s approach strikes us as refreshing and encouraging… instead of the norm!

Rav Yosef was passionate in his defense of such students.  “Don’t throw them out.  We are dealing with nefoshos!  This is dinei nefoshos.  Our Rabbonim only addressed dinei nefoshos when there was a Sanhedrin, 23 chachamim. This is dinei nefoshos. You throw him out and what will be with him then?  You know what will be?  Do you accept responsibility for what he will become?”

“Therefore, you must love him and smother him with love, bnei Yisrael whose future is to become gedolei Yisrael. To bring them closer with sweet words and this is how we bring them into the Torah fold.”

In truth, Rav Shteinman similarly responded to the Internet question. Each student is to be considered on an individual basis; for each student there is a need for a shailas chochom; each situation demands discussion and analysis with a Chochom.

The most important thing, he emphasized, was to not demean or demoralize (not to be me’zalzel ) any talmid.   Never to dismiss any talmid as hopeless, as “nu, meila.”

In his response, Rav Shteinman showed himself to be a true and absolute gadol – a visionary who could see clearly and respond to the demands of the times.  He provided the wisdom of a zakein.

Anyone can treat a difficult or misbehaving student as garbage.  Anyone can just throw him out.  But it takes a teacher to transform him into the gedolim and nashim tzidkanios that Rav Shteinman envisions.  “Who can know what great tzaddikim and tzidkaniyos and what great talmidei chachamim can emerge from the children sitting right in front of the mechanech!

If a mechanech does not realize what treasures sit directly before him, chas v’shalom, he may claim that he only agreed to watch “silver coins.”  But, in fact, he has before him the purest gold.  He has before him neshamos kedoshos!

Rav Shteinman was determined that his listeners would truly understand the importance of never dismissing, ignoring, or overlooking any student.  “Let me give you another example,” he told them, “you know that Rav Chaim Volozhin established the yeshiva in Volozhin, which existed for exactly 70 years.  The yeshiva had roshei yeshiva, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, and then his son Rav Yitzchok, and then a son in law of Rav Chaim, and another son in law, and then the Netziv.”  He sighed.  Of the seventy years, the Netziv led it for fifty.  “In other words, Yeshivas Volozhin was all the Netziv.

“Yes, the Netziv who had not been particularly well thought of (mi’tchila chashvu alav sh’hu lo kol kach) turned out to be very special.  Because of the Netziv, all of Volozhin, for 50 years existed and thrived.”

Give heed.  Teach with your heart.  Love you students.  You never know, the next Netziv may very well be sitting before you in your classroom!


Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.