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What Happened to Hard Work?

I teach less material and more skill. The lessons are geared toward the average to strong student. Shoddy work is not acceptable


appreciated the letter written by a Caring Morah titled, “A Changed Classroom Climate.” As a ninth-grade morah, it was validating, albeit saddening, to see the elementary school morah echo my suspicions and sentiments of the last few years. Indeed, I share her impression that “the decline of the percentage of high-average to strong students has been sharp. I now have a large low-average and even larger weak-to-extremely weak percentage in my class, leaving me a few strong students…. The administration continually asks its teachers to lower the standard in order to reach as many students as possible….”

I have also been observing this decline for the last few years. About five years ago, I asked my daughter’s sixth-grade morah about the lower standard — easy work, no homework, simplified sheets, zero memorization, etc.… She told me that her principal wants her to simplify. Keep everyone happy. Reduce complaints from mothers. Reach the weak student.

While I don’t claim to really know where this new rationale comes from, for a long time I did have a niggling thought that one major reason for this new reality in some of our elementary schools is pressure from inexperienced parents, or parents of weak students. Because of the fear of “losing” these students, hanhalah members require their teachers to “go easy.” And that’s the new level for everyone.

ASteacher for almost three decades, I’ve met quite a large number of parents whose value system does not include the painstaking, often difficult task of priming their children with the attitudes and beliefs that will make real learning possible. They have a different set of priorities, whatever they may be. (A while ago, I read a letter in a different publication from a mother, who was questioning the option of getting her tenth-grade daughter a job instead of finishing school. Yes, you heard me.)

Then there are other parents who have valiantly tried to help their children succeed in school, but they simply can’t keep up. Following the hanhalah’s directive, Morah then simplifies for everyone, and it seems like the issue is solved.

Except that it isn’t. In their crucial formative years, the average to strong children in the class are sailing along learning very little skill. There is no high standard to reach and no need to exert oneself. The slow building of strength and resilience that usually comes in elementary school through years of tackling hard work and the ensuing wonderful feeling of accomplishment that children so desperately need for their developing self-esteem is absent.

The universal desire of parents to see their children happy and not stressed is certainly a valuable one. That’s why parents need to offer their children the opportunity to engage in activities and hobbies, making sure there’s ample time at home to sweeten their workload and reduce pressure and stress. School, however, is a place for real work, skill building, and education. It is in school that the thinking mind is developed. While we may include fun techniques in our teaching, if we dumb down our teaching and skill building by going easy on our students, we will have been derelict in our responsibilities and are guilty of neglect.

Some parents and administrations have proclaimed their young charges to be “children of nowadays, who can’t do so much.” Children are anxious, they say. I would like to posit that it is their parents who are anxious, because they cannot handle watching their children struggle. Besides a small minority of academically gifted children, the majority of most heterogeneous classes has usually been average, and most will struggle somewhat, requiring consistent ongoing training and motivation to succeed.

In any event, when children are not trained properly at a young elementary-school age, they will be anxious later on when life’s responsibilities pile up. In school, parents will attempt to relieve this discomfort by complaining to the hanhalah and to Morah to reduce the workload. This is not always beneficial to their own children and certainly not a fair attitude for the rest of the class.

Is it not true that the value of school tasks is not always apparent or immediate? Even regarding home tasks, do we say that a child need not make his bed or clean up after himself because it’s too hard for him now, or do we show him how to do chores, and keep expectations reasonable while we praise his efforts and consistently move him into becoming a healthy productive adult? As time goes on, we give him more responsibility, not less, with the hope that in the future, he will contribute to the needs of the home easily, not only without much discomfort or anxiety, but with joy and a healthy sense of self that he is capable and productive.

Some parents may have to admit to themselves that they are either too busy or otherwise occupied to bother with all that schoolwork entails. Some parents have already done whatever they possibly could for their children. These parents need the simplification and modification of school standards for their child, which has now become the norm in some schools for all children.


What are we to do now?

I believe it is still possible to right this wrong in the early years of high school. With much siyata d’Shmaya, I am trying to fill the void created by some elementary school administrations. I teach less material and more skill. The lessons are geared toward the average to strong student. Shoddy work is not acceptable.

At the beginning of the year, many students are frustrated, as are their parents. I reassure them that as the weeks go by, they will find themselves accomplishing and reaching goals with a smile on their face. It is now already January, and my students are learning on a ninth-grade level. In February–March, I will raise my bar, ever so carefully, to prepare them to enter tenth grade.

When possible, I will continue asking extra-hard extra-credit questions for stronger students, staying through lunch or recess to hear out the questioning intellectual student, and offering modified tests to weaker students. I will do my best to make sure my students shine and have fun during extracurricular activities. With caring and understanding, all my students will hopefully feel comfortable in my classroom, as we keep the standard on the level where it rightfully belongs.

Hopefully, when they all wave goodbye to me in June, I will enjoy a morah’s sweet feeling of satisfaction, the one that comes from responsibility and accountability for all students.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 994)

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