| Family First Feature |

The Student I Didn’t Reach

Four veteran teachers share candid memories of the students they missed, and principals shares insight into how we can help those girls in the future

A baseball player who makes a hit one out of every three at bats is considered excellent. A stockbroker who consistently performs a few percentage points better than the market average is an industry leader. But when it comes to our children’s chinuch, the goal is nothing less than 100 percent success.

Teachers face classes of two dozen or more impressionable souls. They aim to reach every one, and usually do so remarkably well. Inevitably, though, every teacher has encountered a student they couldn’t reach or somehow overlooked or underestimated. Here, four veteran teachers share candid memories of the students they missed, and principals shares insight into how we can help those girls in the future

Chaya

Middle school
Brooklyn, NY
15 years’ experience

At times, you think you’re doing so well with a student, and then something shows you how tenuous the relationship actually is.

Daniella was a smart kid, and so good at hovering on the edge of the line without actually crossing it and getting into trouble... at least, not too badly. I thought I was getting through to her. I made sure to communicate my faith in her, both during class and outside, and I thought she knew how much I cared.

Still, she sometimes challenged me during class in ways that were inappropriate. I was firm but compassionate, reiterating that I had high expectations of her and believed in her potential.

After one particular altercation, I said, “Daniella, you’re better than that.” To my surprise, the self-possessed, sharp-tongued eighth-grader started to cry in the hallway. Clearly, something was going on, but I had no idea what struggles she was facing outside of the classroom.

The school policy is to share very little about students, and I had to compensate with informal sharing. “How’s Daniella doing in your class?” I’d ask. It wasn’t gossip. If I know she’s struggling in multiple classes, we need to get our act together. If it’s only in mine, do we have a relationship problem? A specific subject issue?

I learned that Daniella had a rocky relationship with her parents; they treated her like an adult, without healthy boundaries.

I decided to be totally consistent with all policies, marking every absence, and firmly following up with consequences. My consistency, coupled with my frequent reminders of my confidence in her abilities, were helping Daniella learn to operate within a healthy framework. Or at least that’s what I thought.

Since the students in our day school are pretty technologically connected, we use a course management platform and a lot of email communication in the upper grades. During one particularly busy winter, Daniella wasn’t happy with the workload, and she decided to let me know, in an indignant, disrespectful email on which she cc’ed the entire class.

I kept my cool, responding with an even-keeled reminder that I’d be happy to discuss any issue that was raised in a respectful, private setting. She responded with yet another attack.

As that point the principal intervened and imposed consequences, which the parents fully backed. Daniella wrote a politely remorseful letter and everything settled down.

But I wonder.

I’d told her I loved her and believed in her, so many times. I thought it had penetrated. But I’m convinced that if she believed me, she wouldn’t have acted as she did and reverted to the anything-goes model she’d learned at home.

I remind myself frequently that though it seems as though nothing I’d been trying to teach her penetrated, a teacher’s impact isn’t immediately obvious. Perhaps the grounding I’ve given her will help her out sometime in the future, when she’s ready to apply what she learned.

What bothers me most was that our breakdown in communication could have been prevented had the faculty worked together to create a unified plan to deal with her challenges. My approach could have been far more effective if there was more cooperation in the teachers’ room.

Still, though they haven’t borne fruit yet, I hope the lessons I tried to teach will remain in her consciousness, and one day, they’ll reach her.

 

The Principal’s Perspective

Dassi Wiener, elementary principal, Toras Emes Academy, Los Angeles

Some teachers are concerned that their schools share too much, and others feel they share too little. The key to healthy sharing is recognizing the tzelem Elokim in every child.

In our minds, we need the clarity that Hashem considers the whole of creation worthwhile for the sake of this fourth grader! Without that appreciation, it’s easy to reduce children to “Sara from the broken home” or “Dini who was outrageously chutzpadig last year.” And that appreciation for the tzelem Elokim in each child needs constant refreshing.

In that frame of mind, you’ll readily acknowledge all the good things about a student, even when it’s necessary to discuss her challenges. When you mention her cute smile or creative thinking, you feel more warmly toward her, and that positive outlook is conveyed even when you share unpleasant information.

Before staff meetings, when we need to discuss specific students, it’s always a good idea to prompt participants: “Picture that this is your daughter or sister we’re talking about.”

Yes, it’s sometimes difficult to strike the exact balance of what to share when, but with the proper perspective, you can share anything necessary as long as the student’s dignity will remain intact.

Miriam

4th grade
Lakewood, NJ
8 years’ experience

As a first-year teacher, I taught in a community school with a rather motley assortment of families, and a commensurate load of complex issues. Naively, I thought that once I started teaching in a real Bais Yaakov school, I’d be leaving complicated lives and messy issues behind. But I quickly learned that people are people, and the vicissitudes of life don’t discriminate based on the denier of your stocking or your style of head covering.

One day, I met with my principal to discuss some challenges facing Chani. “She’s the student I worry most about in this entire school,” responded the principal.

Chani had a complex personality, a tense home situation, and had experienced a traumatic medical crisis. By Chanukah time, I could count on one hand the number of times I’d seen her smile.

I was as gentle as I could be, and tried everything to bring her out. I arranged a Chumash tutor to pre-teach her the material, simply so she could experience the one-on-one attention, as well as the boost in self-esteem that came along with having a quicker grasp than her classmates. Though I could tell she appreciated it, her overall gloominess persisted. It didn’t help that her two best friends were also extremely challenging students.

No matter what I did, she projected an attitude of determined indifference, and was always so morose. My heart went out to her, and as I waved goodbye on the last day of the year, I was full of regret, as well as worry for her future.

She was no longer in my class, but I thought a lot about her friendships. I wondered if we should break up the dream team. Would Chani show more of an interest in life without her cynical sidekicks? Or would she be left friendless and alone?

She continued sticking to the two of them, until after much thought, we decided to shuffle the classes after sixth grade. They definitely hung out less together, but I couldn’t discern any apparent change in Chani’s attitude.

But Hashem’s ways are wonderful, and for no apparent reason, Chani started to blossom. Had the class shuffling helped? We didn’t know.

Year after year, the staff watched her slow, steady progress with bated breath. Chani came alive! She smiled more. She made nice friends and participated in extracurricular activities.

One summer, when Chani must have been in early high school, my sister came home from sleepaway camp bubbling with regards her friends sent to me. She chattered happily about which girls had been in which of my classes, and Chani’s name came up.

“Oh, Chani,” I said casually. “What’s she up to these days?” To my delight, my sister described a happy, well-rounded frum girl, among the most popular girls in the bunk. Chani had emerged from the clouds into the sunlight.

The Principal’s Perspective

Shani Kohn, assistant principal, Yavne High School, Cleveland, OH

This would be an equally valid concern regardless of Chani’s traumatic background. Any girl, from however fine and stable a background, is susceptible to influence from her friends, which is a huge and normal part of development.

As students get older, the minute they get a whiff of adult intervention in their social lives — and believe me, they will detect it — it will backfire immediately. It worked in this situation because the school did it naturally, as part of a grade-wide change, without seeming to meddle.

You can give girls opportunities for new relationships, by assigning jobs or group projects that lead to lots of focused time together, but you can’t force relationships. You can only provide or prevent opportunities and hope for healthy results.

This teacher bemoaned her apparent failure to connect with Chani, but she’s being too tough on herself. Effort, not outcome, is the only thing we control. The teachers in the older grades are the beneficiaries of what the teachers in younger grades invested.

We see students blossoming into wonderful young women, but the process to get them there didn’t start in 11th grade! Teachers of younger grades don’t get the satisfaction of seeing the mature product, so it’s important to remember that you never know how students are absorbing and processing what you offer, and how they’ll ultimately blossom.

Aliza

Seminary
Yerushalayim,
21 years’ experience

Being egregiously underpaid, like all teachers, I have to do a lot of things to make ends meet, like teaching at multiple schools and tutoring on top of that. Because teaching in just one school won’t cover the bills, I’m stretched so thin, which limits the amount of energy I can devote to any individual group of students.

That’s why I’m so concerned about the natural fizzling of relationships after seminary. The ones who keep in touch and call for advice — I do great with them. But other girls fall through the cracks.

It’s common for girls to only open up about the issues they’re are grappling with toward the end of the year, once they’ve come to trust us. Unfortunately, at that point there’s relatively little time for us to help them.

That’s what happened with Esti. Just a few weeks before her flight home, she told me about a serious mental health issue she wasn’t taking care of. At a loss, I quickly consulted more knowledgeable people, and did my best to encourage her to see the appropriate professionals.

My efforts were only partially successful: She got help, but the cheap, mediocre help covered by her student insurance, rather than the more costly experts who could have helped her more effectively.

After she went home, I did my best to stay in touch with her and encourage her in her journey toward healing. It worked for a year or two, but life happened, and we fell out of touch.

I’d think of her occasionally with a pang and tell myself I really needed to follow up, and then… just didn’t. I was simply too busy. It was only a couple of years later that I heard through the grapevine that her family had experienced a crisis, her father had been arrested, and she had suffered a relapse. I resolved to call her as soon as I had a moment, and then… just didn’t.

I feel guilty to this day for dropping the ball. From mutual acquaintances, I’ve heard that she’s angry at the frum community and feels we weren’t there for her when she needed support.

And though I clearly messed up in this instance, I wonder how many missed opportunities like this are inherent in the system. If alumnae follow-up was built into my job description, would I have made time to call her? I’d like to think so.

I’ve heard that Michlalah has an alumnae hotline. During designated hours, alumnae can call in about anything — shidduchim, workplace advice, personal growth — and know that a caring teacher is waiting to talk to them. That removes a lot of the “Am I intruding? Is she in middle of bedtime?” worries that sometimes make a girl hesitate to call when she needs guidance. It’s a great idea for all seminaries to implement.

Still, while it’s wonderful to stay in touch with seminary teachers even after returning home, a long-distance relationship, coupled with the logistical complications of the time differences, doesn’t replace a connection to a readily accessible mentor.

Schools are all strapped for cash, but what if they could periodically send a teacher or two on a US tour to speak in different cities and make themselves available for appointments with the girls? Being proactive in maintaining relationships could make such a difference in our students’ lives.

The Principal’s Perspective

Rabbi Ari Mintz, menahel, Bnos Chaim Seminary, Lakewood

It’s definitely true that we reach some girls at the eleventh hour. Girls warm up at different rates, and open up at different times throughout the year.

We find that a hotline with dedicated hours works well for many graduates. Still, when a girl has a confusing date or needs to decide which job is appropriate for her, she wants to talk to someone right now. Our most valuable tools — ongoing face-to-face engagement through shanah-beis shiurim and in-person meetings — are a wonderful option that our location affords us.

If a student has seen that her teacher is available and eager to help, then even if she didn’t avail herself of the opportunity during the year, she’ll know she can call when she eventually needs to.

Penina

High school
26 years’ experience
Five Towns, NY

With high school students, there’s a very fine line between being interested and being intrusive. I tend to err on the side of not speaking up, respecting the girls’ privacy even when perhaps it would be appropriate to say something.

A student of mine was a good, solid girl who always followed the rules in school. Outside of school, Leah’s behavior wasn’t always in sync with the school’s values, but it was in line with her community, so that was perfectly understandable.

The summer after graduation, she crossed a line during camp and was sent home for the rest of the summer. I debated reaching out to her. We had a good relationship, and I felt for her, for the pain and embarrassment she must be feeling. She was probably devastated. Eventually, I decided to stay quiet, figuring she didn’t need the whole world calling her. Though I ran into her here and there, I never mentioned what had happened.

Some weeks later, one of Leah’s friends called me. “Mrs. Gross,” she said, “I think you should talk to Leah.” Turns out, Leah was so angry that no one besides the principal had called at the time, or reached out to talk to her subsequently. She’d been a good kid, more or less toed the line, but now nobody had been there for her in her time of need. She knew she’d been in the wrong, but she didn’t expect to be ignored.

Since then, Leah’s wanted nothing to do with the school and the value system it represents. She still keeps Torah and mitzvos, she does her work, but she’s checked out. Her path is different, and less committed than it was before.

This incident taught me the power of a simple overture. When I recently heard about a former student’s broken engagement, I replayed the same internal debate. Reach out? Intrusive. Say nothing? Callous. Ultimately, I spent over two hours composing a personal text to let the girl know that I was available and sympathetic, without trespassing on her private pain. While she didn’t respond, a month later she let me know how much she’d appreciated my message and how cared for she’d felt.

The Principal’s Perspective

Mrs. Shani Kohn

Chinuch these days is a full-time endeavor. You’re not just a teacher, you’re also a coach, mother, therapist, and who-knows-what-else. We’re expected to be completely engaged and available for student more than ever before.

Even though they’re not in school all day, we take responsibility for the full picture, so if we hear that a student has challenges outside of school, it’s 100 percent our responsibility to step in and help them.

At the same time, a teacher’s primary focus needs to be her current students, and she might have 50, 100, or more new students every year! It’s not reasonable to expect a teacher to stay on top of all her current students and all her previous ones, too.

This teacher seems to be blaming herself needlessly. A girl at the cusp of adulthood is responsible for her own choices, and while her school may have let her down, she chose to use her disappointment as justification for her actions.

The choice that the teacher made to not call is understandable. There are any number of reasons a student at that age might not have wanted to be called: Teenagers are extremely image-conscious and she might have been mortified to think people were discussing her troubles; she might have moved on and found new mentors and not appreciate old ones meddling; she might have wanted space.

While in this case the student took offense, teachers can let go of the guilt they feel for not managing to hold on to every student relationship. It’s neither a reasonable expectation nor a realistic one.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 712)

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