Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Bamidbar - Shavuot 76 - Unconditional Teaching

After having counted the tribes, The Torah lists the Priests= Kohanim and Levites. They would devote themselves to spirituality and the service of God in the Tabernacle.  The Torah introduces us to the descendants and children of Moses and Aaron – אלה תולדות אהרן ומשה     these are the offspring of Moses and Aaron …….  And then begins to list only the sons of Aaron.   The Talmud – Sanhedrin asks why does the Torah list only the sons of Aaron and call them the offspring – תולדות of Moses as well. The Talmud says that if someone teaches someone else's children Torah, it as if he bore them.  Moses taught Aaron's son's Torah and became their spiritual father. The implication for teachers is that is that they must treat pupils and students as if they were their own children. The litmus test is that a student must see in the teacher a caring father and that the teacher's acceptance, respect, concern and love for the child must be unconditional and does not depend on what the child does – learn well or behave , but on who he is.

The question is why  ' unconditional teaching ', the title of an article   by A. Kohn, is   so important for the teaching of Torah.  The teaching of Torah should focus on the whole child – not only his external behavior and academics. It should focus on his thoughts, motives, underlying values, his emotional and spiritual side and informal learning = learning from all people etc.  We want kids to feel self-directed, internalize their learning, develop a love for learning, give expression to their personalities, individual thinking, learning and values through communication, doing good deeds and mitzvoth and teaching others.  When kids feel that they are valued conditionally, and feel more or less loved and accepted depending how they perform or behave, acceptance is never a sure thing. Carl Rogers explains that children will be able to accept themselves as fundamentally valuable and capable, is to the extent which they have been accepted unconditionally by others. They need to see themselves as basically good people in order to repent and do Teshuva, be accepting of others and do good  to them. Children, whose parental/teacher love and acceptance was conditional , based on what they do and not by who they are, have a lower perception of their overall worth, come to disown parts of them that are not valued , regard themselves as worthy only when they behave in certain ways and accept themselves  and others with strings attached. In extreme cases they will create a ' false self ' in order to be the person their parents will love.

When it comes to academics, acceptance is based on performance. We use competition to ' rank kids' against each other and try to remedy the situation by giving each kid a ' chance of being number one '.We motivate kids to learn by using grades, honor rolls, praise etc.  So the focus is on achievement and the message kids get is only those who do well count. We focus on helping kids think on how they are learning instead of focusing on what they are learning so they can connect to and internalize the learning. Kids, who feel valued irrespective of their achievements, accomplish quite a lot and develop a healthy self-confidence in themselves and a belief that it is safe to take risks and try new things. Every child should be able to find his place in the Beit Hamidrash, connect to the Torah and feel valuable in the eyes of the teacher.

When it comes to behavior, acceptance is based on a child being compliant and obedient. Kids are forced into time-out, detentions and suspensions or even corporal punishment or seduced by rewards   in the hope that they will be taught a lesson, to behave better and be more compliant. Kids experience these consequences and  ' doing to ' approaches rather differently - that acceptance is conditional, teachers are unfair, and mistake was being caught and become alienated from the teacher and learning in general. Instead of helping kids do Teshuva, and reflect on the consequences of their actions and feel sorry for others, they now feel sorry for themselves. When we focus on the whole child and not just on the behavior, we take into account feelings, motives, values, underlying problems, lagging skills etc. We can then echo the CPS, collaborative problem solving moto that 'children do well if they can and not children do well if they want to ' and try and deal with the underlying problems  that are giving fuel to the child's behavior and solve the problem – working with the child in a collaborative way.

Marilyn Watson in her book "Learning to Trust" explains that a teacher can make it clear to students that certain actions are unacceptable while still providing a deep kind of reassurance that she still cares about them and is not going to punish or desert them even if they do something very bad. This posture allows their best motives to surface and give them space and support them in the process of reflecting and autonomously engaging in the moral act of restitution - Teshuva. If we want students to trust that we care for them, then we need to display our affection without demanding that they behave or perform in certain ways in return. It is not that we don't want or expect certain behaviors – we do, but our concern and affection does not depend on it. '

A relationship depends also on being interested in hearing their opinions and perspectives of how things could be done differently and countless gestures that let them know we are glad to see them. The Chazon Ish is quoted as saying – what kids need more than love is respect. For kids, how much the teacher cares is far more important than how much he knows.

Kohn asks teachers... Imagine that your students are invited to respond to a questionnaire several years after leaving school. They are asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree – how strongly – with statements such as : " Even when I was not proud of how I acted , even when I didn't do the homework, even when I got low test scores or didn't seem interested in what was being taught , I knew that – insert your name here – still cared about me."  How would you like your students to answer that sort of question? How do you think they will answer it?

With Shavuot approaching, we reflect on ' receiving the Torah ' and passing it on to future generations. We should remind ourselves that unconditional love, acceptance and respect will help us focus on the whole child and without judgment help them be more focused on what they are doing and learning and on not on ' how well ' they are doing, so that they can connect to the Torah and internalize its teachings..

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