Healthy Education: A Proposal

People are talking.  They are thinking.  They are writing.

Over the course of the last week, since I published an initial piece on a current scandal in the world of Jewish education, I have been engaged in conversations with all types of Jews about how best to respond to the underlying nature of the problem I outlined.

When an issue resonates across the Jewish spectrum, it is clear that it is something we are all struggling with.

And the questions that are raised are not easy ones. How do we differentiate between good and bad charisma? How do we raise awareness about unhealthy educational methods without sparking a witch hunt? How do we weigh the benefits and risks of certain teaching practices and decide when the former does not outweigh the latter?

I will leave the answers to these excellent questions to people better qualified than I to think them through.  Elli Fischer did us all a service by collecting some different ideas that have been put forward and then adding his own list of sharp, concrete questions that we can all benefit from thinking about.

The work of reflecting on education and educators in each and every Jewish institution must happen continually. For it might be true that the perpetrators in the middle of these scandals are in a different league than most other educators and that, at their core, they are usually self-aggrandizing and manipulative in a deliberate and intentional way. However, I believe that there is a specific reason why they often go unnoticed and unchecked for so long and why students themselves are not able to stop and say, “something is wrong here.”

Unfortunately, a lot of the methods these educators employ and the kinds of things that they say are often not strikingly different from many other things students experience and hear from good, well-meaning people. They are different in measure and severity, but not necessarily in kind. In my experience, the educational methods of the abuser (though of course not the physical abuse) lie at one extreme end of a broad continuum that is otherwise tolerated. And because of that, the ability to differentiate becomes much tougher.

We are asking our students to embrace strident exhortations from some teachers, but to identify when one is “a little too strong;” to engage in deep, personal conversations into the late hours of the night, but to know when “this seems inappropriate,” and to be uncomfortably pushed to reexamine aspects of their lives, yet realize when resultant guilt and angst has been harmful.

If we want to deal with and prevent the extreme cases, first, I believe, we must acknowledge that we sometimes blur the very lines that we propose should be clear for students, and thus handicap them in being able to distinguish between learning and manipulation. Our communities and our institutions must continue to raise awareness and to think about what the right lines and boundaries are for our educators to stay well within — admittedly, at the possible cost of supposedly missed opportunities–if we want the entire range of our students to be able to recognize a problem.

But what next?  What is a response to a teacher who might feel that I have just clipped his or her wings and taken away proven methods of effecting change?  What am I proposing instead?

I would suggest that perhaps we can re-center what education should look like.  At its foundation are the values of respect, humility, responsibility and trust that I previously wrote about.  But how do these qualities manifest themselves in practice? I am not an expert in the field of education, but I would like to offer my thoughts about two features that I deeply believe are important aspects of developing healthy approaches towards teaching.

The first is an emphasis on positivity. Teachers and institutions have a right to teach their philosophies and to teach them passionately, but they can and should be taught from a positive perspective.  Expose your students to the beauty of what you believe in. Allow them to see and experience why you have made the choices that you have. Let them discover ideas that they never knew existed. Present them with the opportunity to consider choices they didn’t think they could want. Education includes sharing ideas, texts, thoughts, and feelings. But a good educator works hard to share all this in an uplifting way.

Fear is an easy “go-to,” as is guilt. But using them is like a comedian resorting to mocking someone in order to get a good laugh because he or she can’t be more creative. It takes hard work to formulate for yourself and for others what is so compelling about your message, and it is definitely easier to simply poke holes in someone else’s. And you might see quick results, but pervasive negativity and fear ultimately bring people down. They can lead to frustration, resentment, a feeling of being lost and to real and deep anger.

The second aspect is to continuously be looking to foster independence. Our students, even the most loyal, will not be with us forever, and helping them develop the skills to navigate life’s difficult choices when they are full, responsible adults must be the ultimate goal of our efforts.

Students don’t always appreciate this in the moment. As they are struggling through tough life decisions or dealing with questions on their minds, they often seek out and even pressure their mentors to tell them what to do and what to think. While an educator can and should be there to raise ideas, considerations, and even hesitations and to share thoughts, I believe that the primary role is to listen closely and to help the student figure out what they want for themselves after they have carefully deliberated and examined all the possible outcomes and consequences.

Short of allowing a student to do something dangerous, I believe that this is the only way that real growth can happen. As a teacher, I try to share what is on my mind and to help the student think through something clearly. After that, it is time to take a back seat. We cannot try to control other people; we can only attempt to educate. Our students must ultimately stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for their own choices. Mistakes will be made, but much learning and growth will happen. It might take longer to get there, but once they arrive, they are often there to stay. They won’t feel a need to be “deprogrammed” to “flip back” or to question how they even got to where they are to begin with.

We must think carefully about the high price of denying a student of his or her independence. At some point it will happen in any case. The teacher will not be able to be there at every turn, no more than a parent can keep his or her children from ever leaving the nest. And then what?

At some point we must give our students and our children the tools with which to make the best decisions that they can and then educate them to trust themselves to continue to learn and grow, even when they falter.

To outsiders, who measure success of a teacher or an institution based on quick, rapid, external change, it might look like there is failure. But those on the inside know how far someone has come, how much they have truly learned, what is internalized and what will last a lifetime.

When positive education fosters independence, there is ownership, there is personal buy-in, there is joy, and there is empowerment. There is growth, there is maturity, and there is self-reflection. And there are relationships between students and teachers that have the potential to evolve into mutual adult relationships and are not frozen in time, stuck in the phase of mentor/protégé forever.

This type of education requires respect, humility, responsibility, trust, patience, creativity and lots of hard work on the parts of the teacher and the student. It involves a shift from teaching towards the next stage of life to teaching for a lifetime. The rewards, on all sides, are not as easily reaped, but they are ultimately much deeper and more satisfying then the easy payout of a quick turnaround.

I personally think it is well worth the effort.

About the Author
Shayna Goldberg teaches Israeli and American students in the Beit Midrash l'Nashim-Migdal Oz, an affiliate of Yeshivat Har Etzion. She is a Yoetzet Halacha and a contributing editor for Deracheha: She made aliyah with her family to Alon Shvut in July 2011 after working as a Yoetzet Halacha for several synagogues in New Jersey and teaching in Ma'ayanot Yeshiva High School.