I think one of the most common and utterly terrible mistakes teachers make is embarrassing a student. If I were a betting woman, I’d bet most have or most will commit this grievous sin. You’re probably thinking, “Exaggerate much, Klara? Sin, Klara? Grievous? Come on!”
I have heard the things that teachers say to students, and believe me — if someone were to say the same exact thing to them, these teachers would be mortified. But it’s not all cut-and-dried. There is the issue of chinuch, and teachers are supposed to reprimand when needed. Making menschen out of our students should be the No. 1 priority. So how to do it without sounding like a demon and demeaning the poor child?
I remember a student I taught several years back whose behavior was so far from respectful I actually dreaded teaching that class. Can you imagine not enjoying an entire class just because of one student? Any fellow educators who are reading this are sure to understand. We have all had classes we enjoyed less and usually the credit went to one or two unruly students. Anyway, this child had finally pushed me to limit of my patience, and I began to yell at him in a voice that even I didn’t recognize; let’s just say I put the demon in the Exorcist to shame.
In all my years of teaching I don’t remember being so angry at a student or acting so terribly unprofessional. The poor kid and the entire class were dumbstruck, and although it sure felt good to finally put him in his place, I knew that I had achieved nothing. This child might fear me from now on, but that would come from a place of contempt and not one of respect. He would not be motivated to succeed in my subject and would probably remember that situation as distastefully as I do.
In my defense, this episode was the only time in over 30 years of teaching that I went ballistic on a student. That doesn’t mean I haven’t reprimanded others for inappropriate behavior, but I have always tried to do so respectfully and, above all, privately and not in front of other students.
We are taught in the Torah that embarrassing a person is tantamount to killing him. In fact, in Parashat Devarim, in order to avoid embarrassing Bnei Yisrael by mentioning their past sins, Moshe Rabbeinu only mentions the places where their sins were committed. He hints it to them. As educators and parents, we sometimes use the art of the allegory to make a point or teach a desired behavior. Noah called the animals into the ark as the בהמה טהורה and the בהמה לא טהורה instead of using the phrase בהמה טמאה. To call them בהמה טמאה would be to embarrass them; בהמה לא טהורה was a kinder description.
This works in class, too. Instead of saying, “OK, who’s not ready for class?” I announce the names of the kids who are ready. Yes, I do this with middle-schoolers and even high-school students. Always point out the positive and focus on that. Don’t focus on those who didn’t do the work or are talking when they shouldn’t be, but on those who did their work and are behaving beautifully. Positive reinforcement works with all ages because everyone enjoys positive attention. Try it with your spouse, too!
So while I try with all my might never to let that she-demon loose again, and I make every effort to treat my students as I would want to be treated or as I want my own children to be treated, it is not always an easy battle. We all want the same outcome: a generation of menschen. We just need to make certain that we lead by example.
Klara has been an educator for the past 30 years in the United States and in Israel. She holds a master’s degree in education and a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Klara presently teaches at a Jewish day school and has been involved in Jewish day schools in the United States and Canada. For questions or comments, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.