Monday, June 17, 2013

Whose Responsibility?

For better or for worse people often identify themselves with their alma maters. The association can be as simple as an adult asking another where they went to high school, and can be as intense as college graduates that have not missed a home football game in 25 years. We feel a certain kinship with meeting fellow graduates, and can talk about old camp stories for hours.
The connection to the places that we have spent so much of our time is a natural one. We feel eternally a part of places and events that have had major impacts on our personal development. But what about when we associate others with their schools? Is that normal, healthy or smart? Is it proper to view people through the prism of their institutions?
Let’s use a test case to address this issue. When we see a bunch of kids from a school misbehaving in public, we wonder what kind of messages the school is or isn’t sending these kids. My high school actually didn’t allow the sports teams to have jackets (back when it was actually cool). This was partly because they didn’t want any negative public behavior to be associated with the school. Is this fair? Should schools be judged based on the behavior of their students?
First, a distinction should be made between bad influences and bad behavior. If students from a certain school exhibit “at risk” behaviors, then we have to bring the school into the picture. If you wouldn’t want your children associating with such kids, you need to know where the problems are. The actions of a few don’t always reflect on the many, but as they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
However, if you see a group of kids acting rowdy, I wouldn’t start looking at the school. It’s normal for a large group of kids to get wild in public. Nobody’s perfect, and neither are kids, so to look for someone or something to blame might be a bit unfair. Think about your children. Imagine if you had 25 sons or daughters the same age. Would expect them to behave every time they are together in public?
But let’s say we are dealing with a pervasive behavior problem. A student or a group of students are consistently rude to teachers, wild in public, and cruel to other students. This goes beyond “kids will be kids” behavior, and moves towards being a concern. Who do we look to for answers? Is it fair to look at this group and say “Oh, so that’s how Yeshivat HaYeshiva students act? I’m never sending my kids there!”
I think the answer here is pretty clear: It starts at home. Instilling midot in children cannot happen in an artificial environment, which is exactly what school is. Some schools do a better job of making school feel like home, and others do a better job of giving real-life experiences to their students. Either way, when it comes to learning how to be a good person, there is no substitute for what is learned at home.
So what can schools do? First of all, they can and should keep talking and teaching about midot. The fact that home is most significant doesn’t make what happens at school inconsequential. Secondly, schools can work midot into the “real-life” aspects of the day. Midot must be embedded into the school culture. Teachers should be extra-careful regarding how they act and speak around and to students. Mantras about bullying, kindness, respect for others’ property, and other important concerns should be posted around the school and used by faculty and students alike. Students should know that obnoxious comments and wild behavior will never be tolerated.
Most importantly, all this needs to be made obvious to the students. Teachers should be open about certain things they say or do. Besides making the students aware of their values, the teacher’s transparency carries the benefit of fostering honesty. Honesty has a very powerful effect with children. When students and children think that teachers or parents are being “real” with them, they will be 100% more receptive to their message. Also, being open allows students to look at teachers as role models. Not being upfront usually breeds within students a feeling of being manipulated, no matter how pure the teacher’s intentions may be.
The key is to take midot from being the “what” and make them the “how.” As much as we’d like it to be true, learning Pirkei Avot will not change behavior as much as reading about how doing a triple-bypass can make someone a great surgeon. Midot need to be part of the casual conversation, and something that all teachers must include in everything they do. Proper behavior can only be taught with proper behavior.
Getting back to the original point, this explains why what happens at home is so much more powerful than what happens at school. Midot represent proper behavior in everyday life, and nothing is a better example of real-life than real-life itself. School has the power to make a difference in how kids view proper conduct, but only to a certain extent. Parents should take responsibility for teaching their children proper midot, and more importantly for modeling good midot. This way, when children learn about midot in school, they will get affirmation for what happens at home. There aren’t many things more powerful than that.

(Originally published in The Jewish Link of Bergen County

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