Jewish Classroom Management

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

The following e-mail came in:

Many of us in small schools end up teaching our own children. It is a joke in my faculty that one should never teach one’s own kid — but despite unbelievable juggling — every year one of us gets one of our own kids in class. This year, in the eleven-twelve group is my son. When he studies — the Earth moves — but when he goofs off — oy vey — it feels like the class is taking bets on who will come out on top, him or me… I try avoiding power struggles but… What to do?

– Your fan in the Hamptons of New York,
Leah Openheimer

The first thing I did was talk to Carol Starin who put this question out to her “five things crew.” Here are some of the wisdom they shared:

[1] Years ago, when I was still in NY, my eighth grade daughter was in my class. There is no question that she and her friends made my life miserable. I’m still not sure if it was because she was an eighth grader or because her mother was her teacher.

We are not a small school but because I offer a choice of family classes or non-family classes, and because the vast majority of my teachers are congregants, I often have children who are in their parents’ classes. The parent/teacher has a serious conversation with the child at the beginning of the year, explaining that there can be no special treatment, and that there will also be no singling out that child for negative reasons. The parent and child agree that as best as possible they will treat one another as any teacher/student treat each other. If necessary, I review the rules with both the parent and the child. It’s hardest with the little ones – the first place it’s possible for this situation to happen in my school is with first grade. We tell the kids that when they are here, their mom or dad is their teacher and not mom or dad. Most of the time it works.

It’s always interesting to read the report card comments that a parent writes for his/her own child. They are always accurate and on target.

And, as in everything else we do, we treat each problem that might arise as an individual situation and find ways to deal with it (even if it involves the teaching parent asking for help with their own child from their non-teaching husband or wife).

[2] Having taught my daughter in preschool and one of my sons in seventh grade, I’ve had some personal experience. Regarding the preschooler, I had a good relationship with my assistant and we agreed that she should handle most of the discipline issues regarding Laura as they arose. In our case that worked out very well and Laura learned to trust and listen to another responsible adult. Richard, who was then the seventh grader, begged me to teach his class. He and I talked before the school year started and developed some ground rules such as treating each other with mutual respect and clarifying our expectations (both behavioral and work wise) of each other. I tried very hard to be fair with him and not single him out. I also expected him to play fair with me. The school principal stood ready to assist if necessary It worked out just fine. The classroom teacher shouldn’t hesitate to call on the principal if there are problems. Hope this is helpful. (Beth)

[3] It is going to depend (obviously) on the age of the child, and the relationship between that specific parent and child. My wife taught our daughter in Sunday School in the first grade, and Lily was provided with content and structure appropriate to her age without any conflicts. Later, in Sixth Grade, I taught Lily again, and by this time she was an able critique of my teaching methods and skills…so my class improved. When it came to Bat Mitzvah, I couldn’t tutor her, because I was THE TEMPLE tutor, so Rabbi Magid wisely took over that role and she did fine because she wasn’t under pressure from me. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be the child of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah tutor…my mishugas. So it all depends. (Daniel Bender RJE)

[4] If parent conferences are necessary (as a regularly scheduled thing or as a consequence of troubling behavior), the other parent needs to be there. The teaching parent and child probably have to be good at being “teacher/student” during school more than “parent/child”. (Debi Rowe)

The basic ideas here are simple. First, second, and third is the need for parents and children to talk, establishing the ground rules for being teacher and student. In addition, our expert panel talked about the availability of resources, classroom madrikhim and the principal. All of this is good wisdom.

There is, however, a second truth, one that we will explore over the next several issues. While “transference” between parents and child can always turn into a problem, the truth is that certain kinds of classroom management styles will work better with your own children — and by in large — those are the ones we are going to be exploring here. These are the few of the ground rules. Every teacher should work hard to keep from embarrassing any student. While many management techniques are predicated on the use of power and embarrassment, these are not consistent with Jewish value. This is more true of parents working with their own children. Public relationships must be polite, must be loving, and must work on boosting esteem. We will look at ways of both gaining control and minimalizing embarrassment, of making management interactions feel supportive rather than confrontational, and in using teaching styles, especially in supplemental schools that allow the interactions your students are seeking. In figuring out how to be good to all students, especially all difficult students, you even give your own child the space to have difficult moments—and that is what a parent who is a teacher should do. The Talmud understands that — and leaves us with this truth:

If one lost something and one’s parent lost something, the search for his/her own object takes precedence. Between one’s own lost object and one’s teacher’s lost object — one’s own takes precedence; but between one’s parent’s’ lost object and one’s teacher’s — one teacher’s takes precedence, because a parent brought you into this world, but a teacher. ‘who instructed one in wisdom, brings a student to the future world. But if a parent is a teacher, the parent takes precedence. (Bava Metzia 33a)

Parent-teachers can be an ideal.