Schools are for children and about children. Without children, there is no school. There are, to employ a term much in favor these days, other vital stakeholders, including faculty and staff, parents, and depending on the situation or nature of the school, government officials, community leaders and contributors. It remains that unless students come, the best faculty in the world, a first-rate facility and all of the funds needed to provide a great education are for naught. We must never forget this.
When students come, they come in all sizes, meaning not only physical sizes. They come with diverse intellectual capabilities and diverse interests and they come from diverse home backgrounds and with diverse emotional needs. Except in a limited sense in some families, there is no societal setting quite like the typical classroom.
The great challenge facing educators is how to mold the inevitable and often far-reaching diversities into a classroom that works. The challenge is how to bring into being the experience that is called education that will allow children to acquire knowledge and skills, including social skills, and to learn and accept the obligation referred to as discipline, the goal being that they will be successful in adulthood and contribute to society. In Jewish day schools, there is the added challenge of inculcating in students in the practices and values of our religion, as well as the knowledge and skills that are essential in Torah education.
No school is perfect. Some obviously are better than others, at times much better. At the end of the day, there is always a measure of failure in the educational process. There are students who do not succeed academically. There are students who do not live up to behavioral standards. There are students who fall away religiously. There are students who do not possess the requisite emotional health or strength to cope well enough in school. Inevitably, therefore, as in all human experiences, there is the falling short of achieving aspirations and goals. Life is not all victories. There is always some disappointment, with the glory of the human species particularly manifested in the determination to go on despite defeat or disappointment.
Overall, schools do a good job, often despite there being without sufficient resources. This is clearly true of yeshivas and day schools, most of which live on a shoestring or less. The lion’s share of the credit for what is achieved in schools goes to educators, so many of whom reach out to students or do far more than is required of them in order to become more effective classroom teachers and in order to achieve better student performance. I am in awe of the dedication of the women and men who teach at yeshivas and day schools and who despite incredibly low salaries, benefits that are nearly nonexistent and paychecks that are often late, come to school determined to do all that they can to teach well and to motivate their students.
There is much research on education, such things as how much teachers are paid, the degrees they have, the time they spend in classrooms, the number of years they stay in the profession, etc. Here is a research project that deserves to be undertaken, especially with respect to religious schools: How much out-of-classroom and out-of-school time do teachers devote to preparation, reviewing and grading paperwork and doing other things that enhance their classroom performance.
There are teachers who do not belong in the classroom, some because they never should have become teachers and some because they have lost their effectiveness. Over-whelmingly, teachers do a good job and deserve our gratitude. They do not deserve the kind of criticism that is heard far too often.
Teachers have nachas when their students do well and this feeling of nachas can be maintained over the years, so that there are teachers who feel wonderful when they see how those whom they taught years earlier have matured and developed. Teachers also have nachas when their students are happy, when a smile comes across their face. I read the following the other day by a Puerto Rican writer: “The happiness of children is my reason to smile.” That’s how teachers feel.
There are children who do not smile, children who are always unhappy or seem to be unhappy. There are children who do not succeed, academically or socially, and there are children who succeed academically or socially who have behavioral difficulties. There are students who do well in secular subjects but not in Judaic subjects or the other way around and there are children who do not abide by religious standards.
This is because in the territory or process that we call education children come in different emotional and intellectual sizes. That is how it is in many families and in all schools. Parents may want to have only angels and a few do. Most are confronted by a range of complexities and try to impart caring and love, as they hope and pray that all will turn out well. Schools do not have the same obligation as parents to accept all children, yet, they have an obligation to accept and to teach children who may be difficult. One size does not fit all in life and one size does not fit all in education.
The hardest part of my work for RJJ concerns the admission and retention of students. There are, of course, constant financial pressure, difficult decisions to be made and the hard work that is fundraising. Personnel matters can be painful, especially when they involve persons I am close to. Yet, none of these difficult responsibilities causes the anguish that arises when the status of a child is at stake. It is never easy to figure out what is the right course and it is always wrenching when the decision is not to admit a student or not to allow him or her to remain.
What I believe is that to the greatest extent possible, the scales must be tipped in favor of children. A child is precious and also an unknown, in a sense he or she is a work in progress. Poor behavior or poor performance may be transient. We all know children who at a young age were poor students or misbehaved who turned out magnificently in adulthood.
For all of the goodness that is evident in classrooms, there is too much of an attitude in yeshivas and day schools that smacks of “if in doubt, throw it out.” A child is not a food product whose kashruth is uncertain. Why, then, is there too much of a culture of rejection in many of our schools?
The answer is that the prevailing attitude, with some exceptions, is that it is not only appropriate but also necessary to reject students who are difficult. We have come to believe that that is the right thing to do. In short, children are treated too often as akin to a food product.
I have written about this subject often during the thirty-eight years that I have been RJJ’s president and, I believe, prior to this responsibility, as well. I believe that what too many people of good intentions are doing is sinful. We look at the products of our schools and we proclaim how wonderfully they have turned out. The students we have rejected are not on our radar screen. We do not know how they turned out and it seems that we scarcely care. Too many have turned away from Judaism.
I know that there are children who should be expelled or not admitted and that, at times, such decisions work out beneficially for the children and their families. These situations are the exception. Doubt about a child’s behavior or suspicions that he or she will cause trouble are not sufficient to justify expulsion. What is needed to justify expulsion is behavior that is clearly wrongful and that is harmful to the school or other students.
Even then, as I have advocated over the years, the decision must not be made by one person. Local rabbis or respected lay people should be included in the process. I have cited in the past the view of the Chazon Ish, the transcendent Torah leader of the last century, that expulsion and admission decisions fall into the category of life decisions and that therefore a Beth Din is required. It is astounding that in the Torah world the guidance of the Chazon Ish is not followed.