Recently, I decided it was time to clear out my email inbox. As I was sorting through old messages, I came across one that I was surprised yet grateful I had missed. Although no longer directly relevant, it concretized a concern I have had about school related correspondence. As there are different motivations, purposes, and styles for communication regarding a student’s school experience, there is a certain element that must always be present – and that is redemption. Communication about any behavior of merit or consequence must contain openness, curiosity, and opportunities for growth. It ought never be “your child did X, the consequence is Y, just letting you know.” To that, I say, “no, thank you.”
Redemption is a beautiful quality embedded in our religious, academic, social and emotional cultures. I have begun thinking of it with practical educational relevance since listening to a professional development workshop led by Chabad Rebbetzin, author and lecturer Shterna Ginsberg about the importance of using “geualadike” (redemptive) language when teaching. Schools often promote messages about “the power of yet”, urging teachers and learners to be mindful that some accomplishments happen and others are yet to happen. There is value in maintaining hope and optimism throughout the educational process, amidst all the steps forward, back, and seemingly in place. So too, religious learning and celebrations often center on light amidst darkness and freedom from adversity or limitation. For an institution that emphasizes redemption in all of these different areas – it certainly bears relevance in communication with and about students and their learning.
If, for example, a student does not complete an assignment by its intended time, breaches dress code, or demonstrates repeated tardiness, it may trigger a certain impression and response from their teachers. These behaviors may be frustrating to a teacher, especially when rules were set, reminders were shared, or make up opportunities were made available. Educators may feel a need to assert themselves, their efforts, and their authority and choose to capture events in writing, confirming they did their part. They may also choose to cite that which a student did not do along with its consequence, so that no student or parent can later claim they were uninformed once a penalty for whatever misstep was incurred. Sadly, this approach is not educational. Neither is it helpful, constructive, hopeful, or consistent with essential features of a healthy educational environment.
Thankfully, there are alternative approaches to this sort of scenario which can be beneficial and appropriate. The first step is for an educator to find themselves in the right headspace to formulate their perspective on the matter at hand. There are reflective questions for educators to ask themselves, including identifying their motivation, technique and desired outcome. They must also consider whether their approaches are consistent with the academic, social, emotional, and spiritual values of the learning community they are a part of. It is essential to depersonalize responses and think about what is the best course to educate this child, and to seek out help from colleagues or mentors when necessary. If an educator is experiencing burnout, a very real and not uncommon profile, it is absolutely imperative that they become self-aware enough to get help and care and never ever project it toward a child.
Correspondence with or about a student should be driven by four essential components; curiosity, sensitivity, compassion, and belief in the students’ ability to succeed. In keeping with these guiding principles, the language chosen ought to be inquisitive, encouraging, hopeful, inspiring, and yes – redemptive. Along with information about what has or has not transpired, correspondence must include interest to hear and understand a students perspective, care about their doing well, and offer flexibility and willingness to support them in that process. For example, it should include questions like “are you aware of this situation” or “is there anything going on that you would like us to know” along with assurance like “please know that we are here for you” or “we would like to better understand and see this get resolved.” If, for whatever reason, an educator is unable to articulate positive language or offer a redemptive outlet to a student, then they simply are not yet ready to engage in any correspondence at all with that student or their family. They have their own inner work to do instead and how necessary for them to take time to honor that practice.
I was once approached by a grandparent of a student at a major milestone event in their lives, to thank me for helping her grandchild overcome certain learning obstacles and achieve goals that did not seem possible. I told her that her grandchild is a very gifted student and just needed someone to believe in them – and I did. I witnessed firsthand the power of conveying faith in a student and giving them the time, space, understanding, and flexibility for their potential to unfold. Extending graciousness and benefit of the doubt will always be worthwhile. I suspect that educators who care more about informing about limitations of opportunities rather than extending them, or are more eager to dictate consequences than gain understanding, are revealing areas of much needed healing in their own selves. I am hopeful that they will seek out the support they need, and that it will be made available for them in a nurturing school environment from the top down, so that there can be a collective team approach to properly and positively educating children.
As I continue to make my way through clearing out my inbox, I feel thankful that I discovered this particular email that inspired this article when I did. Had I found it earlier, when more timely to the relevant event, I may have taken it more personally. Instead, being somewhat more removed, I am able to see it as a teaching moment. As we teach our children and students, there are people and situations that we learn from what to do, and from others what not to do. As my own child was included in this email, there was an opportunity to discuss with them the value of carefully considering our word choices and always choosing language of redemption; so emblematic of our faith culture.