Jewish Classroom Management: A Good Offense (part one)

by Joel Lurie Grishaver

To be a little crass, classroom management has both offense and defense. Defense is when we are forced by a situation to create a response. Offense is the atmosphere and framework we set up in class to encourage participation and to set limits. Classical teacher wisdom states, “a teacher should start strict and then loosen up as the year goes on.” Jewish wisdom will teach,” start cheerfully.

A Case Study

This letter came to us via e-mail from a teacher who taught in a one room school house with fourth to seventh graders in the same class.

The class was looking and acting tired so I had everyone pretend to go to sleep and then say the Shema, provided they wake up and sing Modeh Ani to get them moving. They were mostly excited and into it, but a few kids basically didn’t get up when the “alarm” rang. So 75% of the class was singing Modeh Ani, and the others were lying on the floor being difficult. The whole class was looking at me to see what I’d do about it. My instinct was to be hurt and angry that they had taken advantage of my flexibility in lesson planning, but then I tried to smile and ask someone to tap them gently. Eventually they got up but I ended up feeling embarrassed, like I had lost face.

I often bring this case into workshops and ask people to suggest what this first year teacher should do. The single most popular answer is “chocolate.” Many teachers are into bribing the students who respond positively. The next most popular answers all have to do with other (non-food) modalities of positive reinforcement for the students who are behaving. When I got the letter I ask just one question, “Were the problems the twelve year old boys?” I got back a diatribe on all the things these boys and their families do to make this particular teacher’s life uncomfortable. I sent my diagnoses that I will share with you now. “Greet all students at the door as they come in every day.” This may seem over simple, but I will explain. The problem here is a relationship problem. Until she fixes the relationship issue with this group of students one incident after another will occur. But to explain how saying hello fixes things, let’s start with some Jewish thinking.

In Pirke Avot, 1.15 Shammai says: “Make of thy Torah study a fixed practice; say little and do much; and greet all people with a cheerful countenance.” We care about “the cheerful countenance part.

In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a commentary on Pirke Avot we are taught, “And receive all people with a cheerful contenance” teaches that if one person gave another all the good gifts in the world with a downcast face, Torah credits it as though nothing was given. But if one greets another with a cheerful countenance, even though nothing is given, Torah credits it as though that person had given the other all the good gifts in the world. (Avot d’Rabbi Natan)

I once abused this insight while trying to teach it. I was giving a 200 teacher workshop and there were two who were constantly talking. I told everyone quietly over the wireless mike that I was going to demonstrate how this works. I then walked over to these teachers and screamed at them, “I think you are wonderful.” The words were a compliment but the tone was one of anger. The two stood up and yelled back at me. “They told me I had not right to speak to them like that.” “I asked if they had heard what I said,” they responded that “No one has the right to speak to a student in that tone of voice.” I had made my point but lost the war, the two of them started to walk out. I spent the next twenty minutes apologizing to them while teaching the importance of teachers apologizing when they are wrong.

Here is the simple truth. Students read our tones. Students read our emotions. And that is the content they drink. Until this teacher can like some aspect of these kids, until they know that, she will have a hard time getting them to respond in any positive ways.

The tradition teaches these three responses to the question “Why greet people with a cheerful countenance?” [a] Let a person show a happy face to others so that they will be pleased with her. (Rabbi Jonah) [b] Even if your heart does not rejoice when another arrives, pretend to be cheerful; let the other think that your face lights up with joy at his coming. (Meiri) [c] Shammai is here urging three things that are interconnected. They are about three human areas…wisdom, strength, riches…. He tells us to greet people with a cheerful countenance because it helps you to be strong by mastering anger. We are taught “Who is mighty? One who subdues his/her evil impulse.”…A cheerful countenance is the opposite of arrogance and anger. (Shimon ben Zemah Duran) This last insight by Rabbi Shimon ben Zemah Duran, is the reason that classroom management begins at the classroom door. As each student arrives, the teacher needs to think of something they like or respect about each one. They then smile and greet in a sincere way. Classroom management begins by reminding us and our students that we like them. That is the beginning of a great offense.