by Mrs. Chaya Teldon

Literacy is defined as ‘competence or knowledge in a specified area’. We are constantly working toward math literacy, Hebrew literacy, and literacy in literature in our schools. How often do we think about emotional literacy?

We are taught  that a melamed/instructor deals with ‘gems’ -, teaching chumash, gemara, sichos, etc. There is another type of educator-a mechanech. A Mechanech, compared to a Melamed, deals with raw materials – the student themself.

Our holy task as educators is to educate children, not to teach subjects! And that entails dealing with reality- our students’ reality.

If each child is a kli, a vessel to be filled, then wouldn’t one first need to determine what size the vessel is and how much it can contain? But more importantly, doesn’t one first need to make sure the kli is open? This requires a shared language of emotional literacy.

If a student walks in and is noticeably sullen or upset and not able to focus, receptivity regarding anything will be slowed if not blocked altogether. No learning will be taking place. With a need to be efficient, we as educators, often take a quick temperature of the classroom and mentally ‘cross off’ students who appear to be (or are in) a bad mood. Unfortunately, this method is ineffective, causing us to miss out on a chance to reach out and connect to a student.

This is being written with the understanding that there are no ‘quick fixes’. There is no automatic wand to wave to awaken the student  from their deep emotional slumber, ready to take on the world!  By all means, challenging the student to ‘snap out of it’ is like saying to a hibernating polar bear, “Come on. Just open your eyes.” Nothing doing!

We want ‘closed’ behaviors to stop, but we are falling short in teaching skills by which to attain our desired result.

  • What are we doing to make sure our students have strategies to manage their emotional lives?
  • How are we sensitizing ourselves so that we take notice of the emotional temperature in the room or in an individual?
  • Is our inner voice saying ‘ignore’ instead of ‘engage’?
  • Is the pressure of time allocation (curriculum goals etc.) overwhelming, so that the fear of slowing down and pausing to deal with a ‘closed’ student is considered a distraction instead of an opportunity?

Emotional wellbeing or the lack thereof seeps into so many areas – attention span, decision making, relationships and ultimately, mental and physical health. If emotional stability and the ability to express one’s  emotions is so fundamental to chinuch, why is not more time given to emotional literacy?

If one has a field and wants something to grow, having the seeds is not enough. Without the soil being prepared, the seeds don’t have a chance.

A teacher’s job is to turn the soil, to prepare the earth to welcome tiny seeds and kernels. Establishing relationships, trust, a sense of caring and mutual respect, will enable future crops to thrive.

Data shows that academic success is inextricably tied to building social-emotional competencies. When do our conversations with students about emotions take place? What tools do we provide them with to identify, then express these emotions – skills which will benefit them not only in school, but throughout life?

At the beginning of the school year, we have a conversation with each class. While in our school we used the beginning of the year, taking the best advantage of this, you can also implement it at any point during the year.  Have the conversation – probably multiple conversations – and know that aiding students in recognizing emotions in themselves and others, and understanding the causes and consequences of emotions will only result in happier students and better teaching. The question posed is, “What do you need to feel successful in school? Students share their ideas as the teacher records them on an oversized wall post-it. Responses this year ranged from ‘accepted’ and ‘acknowledged’, to ‘accomplished, motivated and independent’

The next question asked: “In order to feel that way, what will you do?”  The responses were powerful. They were honest and inspiring: “Listen humbly, assume best intentions, withhold judgement, give genuine, positive and constructive feedback”. Students said they would be “polite, set goals and work toward them” . . . and so the discussion went. It was the beginning of creating an open learning  environment where respect is fundamental.

A second chart was created to record shared ideas as to what to do when there is conflict: breathe, talk to a trusted advisor, engage in a friendly, respectful debate, use self reflection, own your feelings.

The document was read and reread, tweaked multiple times, and then, each student signed it. The ‘classroom charter’ as we call it, is laminated and hanging in every classroom throughout the building. Students in each classroom are quite literally, ‘on the same page.’

When a student is out of sorts, upset, distracted, shut down, etc., the teacher or even a peer can point to the charter and remind the student that not only is a reboot in order, but there’s a list of suggested ways  for how to go about doing that!

At the beginning of the year, we had a workshop about davening. The students ultimately came to the realization that it is important to avoid any sort of distractions while davening, because Tefillah is about having a conversation with Hashem. The students recognized how valuable the time that is spent speaking to Hashem is.

We make it a priority to speak to Hashem every single day, without distraction.

Our students deserve no less.

Mrs. Chaya Teldon is the Head of School at The Jewish Academy in Commack, co-founder of Lubavitch of Long Island, and mother of six children, and grandmother to many more! She is a sought after speaker on Long Island, and has lectured throughout the US, as well as in Israel, Ireland, Australia, Canada, England, Argentina and South Africa. The New York Times called her “a hot Jewish ticket.”