Throughout the Jewish world, tens of thousands of children and young adults will soon be heading back to the classroom for another year of schooling. The excitement is palpable. For the past week or so (if not longer), children and parents have been busy purchasing and labeling school supplies, clothing, lunchboxes and other related items. Teachers have been working diligently to ready their classrooms, organize materials and foster an engaging, productive learning environment. Administrators have toiled throughout the summer to have everything in place for day one, including back-to-school programming for students and professional development for teachers.
The first day finally arrives. With great eagerness, children rise early for school, ready to reconnect with friends and meet their new teachers (assuming they haven’t yet done so). They learn new routines, begin to understand expectations, and set off on a new journey ripe with opportunity. They come home smiling (for the most part), in anticipation of more learning and activities in the days ahead. Parents are relieved that their children come home happy and have begun a new cycle of learning.
Teachers may come home drained, but their first day is also energizing. They meet a new group of children who they will engage for the next ten months. They enthusiastically share plans, dreams and expectations, all with the hope of achieving much success.
But a funny thing happens along the way. Our initial enthusiasm oftentimes dissipates, sometimes within but a few days. We start to think of school less in terms of growth potential and achievement and more about the daily grind – an endless process of work, discipline, assignments and the like – that for too many converts opportunity and passion into burden and indifference (if not outright contempt or despair). What can we do to make this school year the one that fulfills all of its promise? How can we make this year the best one ever?
While there is no formula that will work for all of us, there are some strategies that, if followed carefully and consistently, can help our children and ourselves gain the most from the upcoming school year.
- Adjust your mental paradigm – Too often, we think of tasks and processes as sprints. Our goal is to get off to a quick, strong start and we don’t anticipate having to sustain our effort for all that long. To succeed at school requires a different approach. Children as well as the adults who teach and support them need to take a long-term view of things. This may include general persistence and strong study habits. It also refers to a mindset that we are in it for the long haul, with much to do before we can say that we’re finished (at least with this year’s work). Oftentimes, we become disillusioned because we feel that we should be done and resent the fact that we still have a ways to go. If we can program our minds from the outset to think in terms of distance and long-term goals, it will be easier for all of us to keep going until the very end.
- Clue them into the goals – Too often, children and parents don’t really know what the year’s goals and objectives are. Most would probably say “to finish grade.” As a former teacher, I would submit that teachers (particularly newer ones) also may enter the year with a nebulous sense of what needs to happen in order for the year to be considered a success. Teachers can help themselves and their charges by offering a list of objectives (“By the end of third grade, you will have learned … and be able to…”). Even if certain individual students are unable to achieve those goals as they are presented (more about that in a bit), they give the class and the year a sense of direction and purpose.
- Get to know children’s learning styles – Most instruction, particularly in elementary school and higher, tend to be auditory and visual (verbal). This means that teachers rely heavily on their ability to articulate concepts, instructions, etc., and have students learn and process by listening. One common alternative to “lecture” is use of text/board/worksheet for inputting, clarification and review. However, it’s important for all parties to know that there are numerous identified learning styles and we would be well served knowing each child’s personal composition and how we can help the child customize the learning process to his advantage.
We do our children a great service by helping them understand how they learn best. They may be kinesthetic learners, who learn better when they can move as they learn. Perhaps they have strong interpersonal intelligence, and need to talk things through in order to achieve clarity. Maybe they are musical, and would be well served by being able to listen to music or put information to song as a way of deepening their learning. Quizzes are available online that can help determine a child’s learning preferences.
Teachers can help by building in various approaches into their lessons. This can be achieved through process differentiation, cooperative learning, and other techniques. Parents can help by “translating” content into a more palatable form, and also by advocating to their child’s teacher by requesting that content be presented in multiple forms, such as through the use of graphic organizers (visual spatial) and manipulatives (kinesthetic).
- How to you define success? – Oftentimes, success in school is narrowly defined. We place on the academic pedestal those students who are able to achieve in the context of text-based learning, with a strong combination of auditory processing, note taking, memorization and test-taking skills. The rest, including those students who require additional academic supports and / or a different set of curricular expectations, typically do not thrive in such settings, and are forced to endure years of perceived mediocrity or worse in their most important area of self-definition and social status that they have during their formative years. And we all know what happens to children who develop low self-esteem and a general sense of disconnect and disenfranchisement with their learning.
There is no greater impediment to student success and steadfastness than to taste failure early on. It is both unfair and unethical to hold every child to a common standard and to evaluate him or her to that end. Even if a teacher does not feel capable of differentiating learning goals and instructional content, there should be objectives in place that help students feel successful, at least on relative terms.
- Same does not mean equal – To that end, children need to know that different (as in different objectives and treatment) is not unfair. If anything, we create an imbalanced playing field by asking all students, regardless of abilities, supports, etc., to perform the same way. Let students know that personal approaches are designed to meet individual needs and then help him identify and celebrate his successes.
- Get excited and passionate – We cannot necessarily expect our children to be intrinsically excited about school. However, we can foster enough excitement and enthusiasm to bring them along for the ride.
About eight years ago, I attended the high school graduation of students who I had taught as freshman and sophomores. At the post-graduation celebration, a young man approached me. He was in my freshman Navi class for one period each day. The next year, he transferred to a different school in the community. Three years later, he had come to attend his former classmates’ graduation. When I saw him he said to me the following, “I want you to know that this past year my English teacher assigned our class to write about someone who made a difference in my life. I chose to write about you.”
I was flattered, but intrigued. I knew this student for but one year. He was in my class for 40 minutes a day and had many other teachers. “Why?” I asked. “Why did you write about me?” The answer that he gave has transformed the way that I think about education and about life in general for that matter. “I wrote about you because you were always having fun when you taught.”
Mind you, the fun he was referencing was not joke-telling, sports-related banter or the playing of games. To be sure, there were moments of levity in the class, including all of the above. But that was not his intent. He sensed a genuine passion in the class, an excitement in my instruction as well as a desire to engage the students in the lessons and experiences of the subjects under discussion. To him, I wasn’t simply teaching. I was also having “fun.” And he was right.
Parents can instill energy and positivity by demonstrating genuine passion and interest in their children’s work. Let them know how important their learning is and try to get “into it” wherever possible. Children respond positively to the excitement they see expressed by the adults they respect.
- Tell them the benefits – Take the time to help children see the value in what they are learning. If the material falls within general studies, let them know what they will be able to do with their learning, in terms of employment or as informed citizens. Mitzvos, as well as general hashkafa, also must be presented in the right context. Sure, our children need to know that we learn because that is the way to understand and practice d’var Hashem. But they should also be told what they stand to gain, such as reward for the actions, as well as a deep sense of personal fulfillment. This will help motivate them to learn and do more.
- Paint a futuristic picture – The Midrash (Rus Rabbah 5:6) tells us that had Reuven, Aharon and Boaz known that their actions would be recorded in the Torah, they would have done even more than they did. Yafeh Anaf suggests that the Midrash is coming to tell us that these three great personalities failed to grasp the fact that their actions would be recorded in the Torah as exemplary behavior for later generations. Had they realized this, they would have elevated their already good behavior to an even higher level.
As educators, it is our responsibility to paint a picture of the future, to let our children see the great possibilities of success and happiness that await them in the short and long term. They need to understand that such things do not happen on their own, but are the product of hard work, resilience, commitment and other qualities.
- Daven – We all want our students to be happy and successful. Daven regularly for their success.
Of course, the above list represents but a handful of suggestions that can help to ensure a successful year from beginning to end. May all of our tefillos be answered and may we shep much nachas from our students throughout the most amazing and successful year that is now upon us.
Rabbi Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, is President of Impactful Coaching and Consulting. He coaches and consults in schools and also delivers engaging and impactful professional development training for teachers, principals and lay leaders. He can be reached at (212) 470-6139 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Buy his new leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss”, on Amazon or at BecomingtheNewBoss.com/order.