Al sh'loshah d'varim haolam omed: Al haTorah, v'al ha-avodah, v'al g'milut chasadim. The world depends on three things: on Torah, on worship and on loving deeds. - Pirkei Avot 1:2
This year each issue of Vshinantam will be written in partnership with Dr. Robert Brooks www.drrobertbrooks.com, our featured speaker at the 2005 Symposium on Adolescence. New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Council Regional Educator Sharon Halper will help us apply Dr. Brooks theory to our school settings.
Vshinantam is organized around the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and Gmilut Chasadim. In the Torah section you will find a selection of Dr. Brooks writing, in Avodah, applications for your classroom, and in Gmilut Chasadim additional resources.
Mindsets are expectations and assumptions we possess of ourselves and others that guide our behavior. The following are five of the key beliefs that I feel represent the mindset of the effective educator.
1. To believe that what we say and do in the classroom each day can have a lifelong influence on students, including their sense of hope and their ability to be resilient. A basic belief that resides within the mindset of effective educators is that they have the power to be what psychologist Julius Segal called a charismatic adult, that is, an adult from whom children gather strength; effective educators actively seek opportunities to be such an adult. This recognition can enhance the sense of meaning that teachers experience in their work, lessening feelings of disillusionment and burnout. We are less likely to experience stress and burnout when we feel that our work makes a difference in the lives of others.
2. To believe that addressing the social-emotional needs of students is not an extra curriculum. It is unfortunate that a belief has emerged in some quarters that nurturing a student's emotional and social well-being is mutually exclusive from reinforcing academic skills. I am convinced from my own experience that strengthening a student's self-worth is not an extra curriculum that siphons time from teaching academics; if anything, a student's sense of belonging, security, and self-confidence in a classroom provides the scaffolding that bolsters the foundation for enhanced learning, motivation, self-discipline, and caring.
3. To believe that all students enter school wishing to learn and to succeed. If we accept that all students truly wish to succeed, then if they are displaying academic and/or behavior problems, we must ask, What is it that we can do differently so that the student will succeed? As an educator at one of my workshops eloquently voiced, This belief should not be interpreted as blaming teachers but rather as empowering them. She explained, Why continue to do the same thing over and over again if it doesnt work? It is empowering to realize that we have the ability to think about new strategies that may be successful.
4. To believe that students will be more responsive and motivated to learn from us when we first meet their basic needs. Effective educators subscribe to the view that before they attempt to teach a student academic skills or content, their first task is to create a safe and secure environment in which all students feel comfortable and motivated to learn. As has often been said, Students dont care what you know until they first know you care.
5. To believe that parents are our partners, not our adversaries. I realize that it is not always an easy task to develop positive parent-teacher relationships, especially when a child is demonstrating academic or behavioral difficulties in school, but it is an important goal to achieve.
As I noted at the beginning of this article, mindsets are powerful determinants of our behavior. The more aware educators are of the assumptions and expectations that guide their teaching style, the more they can adopt practices that will lead to the creation of a positive, vibrant, secure learning environment.
Applying the mindsets to our setting
Dr. Brooks five points remind us that our perspective can have a powerful influence on our effectiveness. Heres a look at those points as they apply to our settings.
We have a lifelong influence. Ours is avodah in its original sense; it is sacred work. Remembering this is an antidote to the cynicism that we can develop when we see families join and leave our communities around the bnei mitzvah year. Make an effort to recognize the significance of the work you do.
Can you think of a congregational school teacher, rabbi, youth advisor, cantor or camp counselor who taught you something you still remember or who shared a love of Judaism? Has a student or parent ever shared how much a class of yours meant to him or her? Remember these moments and the power of your work.
Reflect on the successes you enjoy in your class. Keep a journal and analyze what worked and how you might transfer the success to another time and lesson. Remember all the things that went right and learn from them.
Addressing the social-emotional needs of students is core. Creating a caring classroom community is perhaps more important than all else in our synagogue schools. Helping our students to make Jewish friends should be a top priority. Teaching Jewish values so that our students know how to act towards one another is central.
Model empathy in your interactions. Demonstrate the understanding and generosity of spirit that you want to be hallmarks of your classroom.
What we commend is what we value. Extend your praise to acts of social and emotional support as well as academic accomplishment.
Think of the context of learning as well as its content. Classrooms can offer a model of Jewish communityone in which we know one anothers names, in which support one another through trials and salute one another in success, we visit the sick and comfort the bereaved.
All students want to learn. Rather than seeing a sea of resentful faces before you, remember that our classes offer the keys to the big puzzle that is who we want to be and what sort of life we choose to live. Nothing can be more exhilarating and challenging and engaging. See you work as enabling students to find their personal puzzle pieces!
Look at a subject in a new dimension and allow your students to take you there. What do they want to learn about a subject? And how would they like to learn it? Allow for choices and some student-directed learning.
Whenever you teach a topic, identify the big questions that it addresses. Dont teach facts without encouraging your students to think about what it all means to them.
Students are more motivated when we meet their basic needs. Our students often come to school tired from a full day, hungry or stressed. How can we help students transition from the outside to our holy space?
Do we need to consider offering a reasonable snack? A quiet time? A story read with low lighting? Soothing music for meditation or sharing? How do we set a tone that lets students know that God is in our place?
Learn what each student loves and what drives them crazy. Build on the former and deactivate the latter. How does each student feel about working in a group? Reading aloud? About competition? Being left to be selected (or neglected)? Student information + your reaction = student/teacher relationship.
Demonstrate through the running of the class that students are protected from peer abuse bullying, humiliation, exclusion. Make your class a safe space.
Parents are our partners. Teachers and parents share a child! Each wants to guarantee the childs success. Remember that we are all on the same team.
Engage with parents over accomplishments. Each child brings a special gift to the world and to your classroom. Let parents know that you recognize the gift of their children. If the gift at times proves challenging to you, you will already be trusting partners with the parents in a nurturing relationship.
How do you feel when you visit the dentist or your accountant? For many parents our classrooms are the sites of past pain or realms of unknown information. Careful (and safe programming) and adult-level information can help overcome negative experiences from the past and enable a comfortable future. Regular e-mails with sources for adult learning that parallels your classroom curriculum can be non-threatening and provide a great segue for family conversation.