This is a transcribed and adapted speech given by Mrs. Sarale Blau at the High School teachers networking Melava Malka organized by the Menachem Education Foundation.
Knowing Your Students
The Maamer וספרתם לכם discusses the middah of Yisod. Yisod in the Nefesh Habihamis connects to physical pleasure. There is a famous speaker who discusses addiction, and suggests that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. This applies to Chinuch as well. If our students are not connected to the right places (i.e. Hashem, Hiskashrus), they will connect to something else, something it finds more pleasurable. When we are in Chinuch, we need to know our students in order to connect with them, and help them connect to Torah.
Mrs. Shavi Slodowitz relates a story of her childhood. She had a tremendous love for animals. Once, walking home on a Friday afternoon, she found a tiny stray cat. As she looked up, she found herself facing the Rebbe. She panicked, not wanting to greet the Rebbe holding a cat. But the Rebbe looked at her, acknowledged the cat, gave her a huge, wide smile and wished her a “Good Shabbos.” She felt as though she and her love for animals was truly validated.
Later, as a 12th grade student, she had a Yechidus with the Rebbe. During the Yechidus, she spoke to the Rebbe about her school’s yearbook rule. They were all required to write an article in hebrew. She refused, not being fluent enough in hebrew to do so. The Rebbe asked her: There must be some subject that you care deeply about and would want to make the effort to write about.” To which she instantly responded, “Animals.” The Rebbe then suggested, “Why don’t you write about tzar ba’alei chayim? the Torah’s commandment not to be cruel to animals.”
She went home, and remembered her Israeli neighbor who could help her with the hebrew. She researched the subject and was fascinated by what she learned. The Rebbe connected with her. That’s what made the difference.
Showing You Care
As a bochur, Rabbi Dov Ber Baumgarten worked with the boys in Yeshiva. He related the following: Once, on Shabbos, he smelled a boy smoking. There was no doubt that the boy was smoking, and he knew he had to do something about it. He sent a letter to the Rebbe about the situation before he would kick the boy out.
The Rebbe responded with only 5 words: עיין אבות דר”נ פי”ב מ”ג
It was a source in medrash, relating a method Aharon Hakohen used. If he saw someone who was stealing, he would go up to him, give him a big hug and say, “I believe in you, I know you can be more.” The message was clear.
At Bais Rivkah’s annual High School convention, the highlight was Rabbi Bruk’s speech. He asked the girls: “Why should you be frum? Maybe you should be running around at the bars and hanging out with boys.” Suddenly, every single girl was listening.
He didn’t speak about other people, he spoke about Rabbi Bruk. He spoke about finding out he couldn’t have children. He spoke about his challenges and how he dealt with them.
It’s not about telling your students about your current challenges, and letting them know all your current weaknesses. It’s about sharing your past challenges, and about how you overcame them.
As a fourth grade student, I was constantly doodling in class. My teacher came over to me and gave me the responsibility to decorate the bulletin boards. I felt like a million dollars. She encouraged me to begin taking art lessons. I hadn’t realized how much I enjoyed art. Now art is an incredible outlet for me.
She recognized my love to draw, and she brought that out in me. I may not remember the grammar or the subjects that she taught me, but I remember her care.
The Rebbe’s Approach
The book Iggeres Hachinuch has a collection of letters from the Rebbe on Chinuch. The following is from the section: “How To Build A Relationship.”
For a connection to happen there has to be closeness. You need to build trust with your students. Every single word that comes out of your mouth has to be true. Little kids get turned off when you make promises to them and don’t follow through. If you’re talking to your students about davening, and you don’t daven, no matter how many excuses you make, your students need Emes.
You also need to talk to them. Not an official, awkward meeting. Find opportunities to speak to them unofficially. The student has to know that they can tell you anything that is on their heart, without fear of getting in trouble.
Another thing the Rebbe said is that one on one conversations are important, but there is an advantage to groups. Not mandatory Farbrengens, but voluntary group farbrengens. Less people will come, but those who do, come out of their own will, and you can’t imagine the impact.
Connecting Through Learning
I’d also like to discuss being able to connect through learning. It’s not enough to be friends with them. You can be a dorm counselor if you want to be friends with them. You also have to teach them, and that is the hard balance.
A few months ago we had a “Shabbos -in”, the theme was based on the famous Maamer of אישה אחת. The Rebbe compares it to a neshama that has no Ahavah and Yirah. When you start talking to the students and say something like, “Do you ever go through your life and have a time when you have zero feeling for Yiddishkeit?” they will look at you like you discovered their deepest, darkest secret. And you can tell them, “This Maamer has an answer for you.”
When you’re teaching Tanya, you can change the whole class by saying, “You know when you wake up and you’re in a bad mood?” There will be students who will tune in because they will be startled. How did my teacher know I was in a bad mood this morning? They will realize that the problems they face every day are answered in the Tanya.
The later perakim of Tanya that are often not taught in school are the ones that discuss shame, guilt and depression. These are the topics they need to hear about! It is our responsibility to show them that Chassidus will not only help them get to know their Nefesh Elokis better, but it will help them get to know their Nefesh Habihamis, and challenges, better. It is our job and responsibility to show them that whatever it is you’re teaching relates to them and to their lives.
Let’s Reach Our Students
Another important line from the Rebbe– to discuss things “Shemadaber El Libam”. Talk about what speaks to their heart. The examples you used five years ago, are not applicable anymore. If yesterday you thought you were cool saying Facebook, it’s not cool anymore. The point is that you need to bring the student to a place where they feel like you know them, and they feel like they know you, and they realize that the subject matter that they are learning will help them get to know themselves better.
There was a teacher who said, “I don’t teach math, I don’t teach history, I teach students.”
Let’s get to know our students better.
Mrs. Sarale Blau is a well-known and welcome face among teenagers, administrators, and teachers alike. She has authored several children’s books, raises her children, and spends the rest of her spare time organizing various community and school-based programs and events.