Chinuch Reflections: The Teacher-Student Relationship By Mrs. Rivka Kahan, Principal

The following article appeared in The Jewish Link, August 18, 2017

Parshat Re’eh centers on the connection between relationship and command.  Bnei Yisrael are instructed in many of the practical mitzvot that they will be expected to keep upon entering Eretz Yisrael, but at each point in the parshah, they are reminded that their observance of these mitzvot is linked to their historical and personal relationship with Hashem.  Interwoven with its enumeration of the mitzvot, the parshah emphasizes that Hashem blesses Bnei Yisrael and shows them mercy, that He redeemed them from Egypt, that He wants the Jewish people to love Him, that they are His own children.  

In religious development, the relationships that a person develops play the most central role, because they form the basis of the relationship with Hashem which underlies all of religious practice and identity.  I have often felt that, while my own upbringing was not religious, the trust and sense of fairness that I experienced in my relationship with my parents became the basis for my experience of Hashem in my life.

Clearly, by far the most important relationships in children’s lives and religious experiences are their relationships with their parents and families.  However, I would like to focus on exploring aspects of the relationships that children develop with their teachers in school, which can also play a pivotal role in their religious lives.  We are fortunate to live in a community and a time when the value of positive, encouraging, healthy relationships between teachers and students is universally appreciated and promoted.  There are, however, a couple of qualities of the teacher-student relationship that are not self-evident but that I believe are core to building the best and strongest relationships in school.

One of these qualities has to do with the role of intellectual challenge in the Judaic Studies classroom.  Educators and parents often consider and debate how to balance inspiration and enjoyment with challenge and rigor in Torah study.  In my experience, challenge is actually an important element in creating an environment of inspiration and conveying respect for the students themselves.  Virtually always, the teachers whom students come to enjoy and seek out as role models are those whose classes are appropriately but authentically challenging.  However, as the parshah teaches us, this feeling of intellectual rigor falls flat unless it is woven together with a strong sense of relationship.

The difference between a challenging class that students love, and a challenging class in which students feel the teacher is out to get them, is the relationship that the teacher cultivates.  Specifically, I believe that a positive classroom relationship is built upon two elements.  Students need to feel that the teacher cares deeply about their questions, that she is willing to devote class time and personal time to exploring them, and that she is happy to change her own lesson plans to engage more fully in the ideas and texts that speak to her students.  Inspiring learning can be text-based and challenging, as long as it is responsive to student interest.  Second, students need to feel that their teacher wants them to flourish and succeed, that he is willing to devote his own personal time to helping them, that he rejoices in their successes.  When these two important elements of the relationship are strong, intellectual challenge is a force for inspiration and growth.

A second element of strong, positive relationships between students and teachers has to do with placing the student at the center of the relationship and encouraging her to chart her own journey.  It is often compelling and valuable for teachers to share their personal convictions about values, matters of faith, and contemporary issues in discussions in and out of the classroom.  However, their role in students’ self-definition and life decisions should be entirely focused on supporting the student as he navigates his own path.  This is in some ways similar and in some ways quite different from the role that a parent might play.

Every year, students meet with me to discuss their choices as they go through the process of applying to Israel schools and colleges.  I take these conversations very seriously, sometimes meeting with the same student every day until she makes her decision, or communicating with students late at night.  Frequently, in the midst of making difficult decisions between two or more schools, students ask me which one I think they should choose.  They are sometimes frustrated that I won’t answer that question — but I feel confident in this approach, as several times students have chosen schools that I would not have chosen for them and went on to have wonderful experiences of growth at those schools.  Even as we come to know our students well and care for them deeply, no one can ever know everything that lies inside of another person.  It is important that teachers be available for their students and invested in supporting them and discussing their questions and their decisions, but always with the understanding that the student defines herself.

Some versions of the Yehi Ratzon prayer that is said after hadlakat nerot on Shabbat include a plea to provide one’s children with “melamdim, madrichim, umechanchim yirei Hashem” (teachers, guides, and educators who fear God).  Chazal often characterize yirat Hashem as the commitment to do what is right even when one’s intentions are known only to God.  In the coming school year, may all of our children be blessed to form connections with teachers who invest in them both personally and intellectually, who care about their questions and their growth, and who place the student at the center of the relationship.  These relationships have the potential to enrich a student’s school experience and, more importantly, her religious experience in profound and long-lasting ways.