By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

 

It is the first week of school across the tristate area, and students will be greeted by their teachers, both new and old. Many of these teachers have been instructed to employ the technique of “Don’t smile until Chanukah.” It is an adage that is taught by teacher-training institutes to new teachers and morahs. It has also been handed down to new teachers by principals. “An iron fist fuels learning” is another manifestation of this educational philosophy. Teachers are essentially told to summon up that sternly impassive countenance of Queen Victoria that says, “We are not amused.”

Possibly this is advice given to teachers to help maintain classroom control. But is it a Torah-true hashkafah? Does it make educational sense?

Ma’amarei Chazal

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (1:15) quotes Shammai HaZakein who says to greet everyone b’seiver panim yafos — with a smile. There is no qualification here that this does not apply to teachers. Nor does it say that there is some sort of general heter not to follow his advice from the month of September until Chanukah, almost 50 percent of the academic year.

The Gemara in Kesuvos (111b) tells us: “Rabbi Yochanan says: ‘Tov ha’malbin shinayim l’chaveiro yoser mi’mashkeihu chalav’—One who smiles to his friend (or causes his friend to smile) is better than one who gives him milk to drink.”

The Gemara in Ta’anis (22a) discusses people Rabbi Brukah determined were those who had a significant share in the world to come, as told to him by Eliyahu HaNavi. He asked them what they do in life, and they responded that they are happy people who make others smile and laugh.

The Avos DeRav Nosson 13:4 states that regarding one who greets his friend with a friendly face, the Torah views it as if he has given him all of the gifts in the world.

These pertinent ma’amarei Chazal all indicate that a smile is extraordinarily beneficial. The first one, the statement by Rabbi Yochanan, is particularly instructive because he was a paragon of chinuch. As such, it is likely that his statement was also meant to be applied in the venue of chinuch.

Does It Increase Learning?

There is no question, of course, that the no-smile iron-fist method does create an atmosphere of silence, one most conducive to teaching. But let’s ask ourselves if this approach advances the cause of chinuch. Does being scared into silence increase learning and understanding?

We all know that Torah scholars are called “talmidei chachamim” (talmid meaning student). There is rhyme and reason to this appellation. Hopefully, our teachers strive to emulate these qualities as well. The implication is that the teacher should model a lifelong commitment to learning, inquiry, and development. The teacher is, in a sense, the lead learner, but the relationship has now been transformed into one where the teacher is actively distancing himself or herself from the students.

The Neuroscience

Recently, studies have been conducted using fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging. Pictures of people with neutral facial features were shown to both adults and teenagers. The fMRI was focused on determining which area of the brain was active when both of these subjects were asked to analyze the picture with neutral facial features. The results were remarkable.

There are essentially two areas of the brain; there is the area that uses logic — the prefrontal cortex — and there is the area that involves emotion, also called the limbic system, or the amygdala. When adults look at a picture with a neutral facial feature, the prefrontal cortex lights up on the fMRI machine. When a teenager views that very same picture, it is the limbic area that lights up.

What this means is that our teenagers are not crazy when they say, “My teacher hates me!” They actually feel that way because their brains have not yet matured. The feeling of “my teacher hates me” is extraordinarily counterproductive to both learning and growth.

Proponents of this teaching philosophy will respond that it is a necessary evil to maintain discipline. It is one step back in order to move two steps forward. And why not realize that after Chanukah the entire issue is moot?

The Firm and Loving Approach

But is this all really true? Is it truly a necessary evil? Is it not possible to be firm but loving as well? It may take more effort, but this is certainly the more productive way to go. Teachers should be taught to show enthusiasm and excitement about the subject matter. The old teaching strategies of aim and motivation should be employed while still firmly but lovingly maintaining discipline. And we should smile from the very first day and onward.

A smile sends a message to talmidim that kindness and politeness are expected. It also builds rapport, likability, and tends to calm down the anxieties that typically accompany school stress. One can still be firm, however, by having clear rules with no misunderstandings, delineating defined consequences, and employing follow-through. But let’s throw out the idea of not smiling.

Let’s analyze two more stories to help bring home these points. Rav Yaakov Ruderman, zt’l, and Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt’l, were once standing together discussing their own cheder experience; they had attended the same cheder in their youth. They both felt that they succeeded in Torah not because of the cheder rebbe, but despite him. Everyone else in that cheder eventually went off the derech, R’l.

The second story is found in the Gemara in Eiruvin (54b), about the famed mechanech Rav Preida, who would teach his student the same thing 400 times before that talmid would understand the lesson. Once, Rav Preida was called to do some other mitzvah but he continued to teach his student. This time, the student did not grasp the concept even after 400 times. Rav Preida asked what was wrong and the student informed him about his anxiety that his teacher would soon leave. Rav Preida had the student relax and taught it to him another 400 times. At that point a bas kol, a Divine emanation, went forth and asked Rav Preida if he would prefer a reward of 400 years to be added to his life or to have guaranteed entry into olam ha’ba for him and his entire generation. Rav Preida expressed his preference for the latter and was awarded both.

The point is that smiling and putting students at ease does matter. Let’s reassure our children rather than be a source of anxiety and alienation.

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com

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