Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Power Behind The Desk

Life was different back then. Simpler, maybe. Better? I don't know...

Teachers taught. They weren't armed with the abundance of research available today, and there was not as much awareness of the psychology behind the job. But a good teacher knew instinctively that she held the future of this classroom full of girls in her hands, and she played a role in shaping these personalities.

Self esteem...

Are babies born with it? That independent toddler, declaring he can do it himself, with no doubt in the world that he can....that self confidence..the self esteem....does it last? When does he turn into an adolescent with low self esteem? When does he lose it? How does that happen? And....who is responsible?

Some of my early school years are just a blur in my memory. I vaguely remember bits and pieces of some years, and I draw a complete blank trying to remember others.

But Kindergarten stands out clearly. I loved school. It was where I shone. I got to leave my ordinariness at home, and I revelled in the teacher's love and admiration. We were taking our first baby steps into the wonderful world of the written word, and I couldn't get enough. While my friends were struggling with finding words that rhyme with 'at', I was effortlessly composing a long list of words that delighted my teacher. (It was years before I understood why she and my father shared a good laugh over 'brat', just one of the words on my list, when he came to pick me up from school that day.) I was in my element, and I relished it.

I was so proud of myself. I was smart! I was lovable!

People who are important to kids have a great effect on the development of self esteem in those kids. The messages that children get about their teachers' feelings toward them can have a profound effect on them. It can set the stage for success...or failure.

Third grade stands out in my memory, too.

I hated Morah L. Hated her. It was such a strange, unfamiliar sensation, and it took some time before I was able to identify it.

I started the school year with my new pencil case, happy and excited to be back. The year began ordinarily enough. But something was wrong. Something so puzzling was happening, and my 8 year old mind could not comprehend it or make any sense of it.

Morah L. didn't like me. I just knew it...felt it so strongly that there was no room for doubt. I continued doing whatever it is that third graders do, and tried not to focus on it. Afternoons, when we had our English classes, were still great, and it wasn't hard to get by the mornings when I had something to look forward to.

But things grew steadily worse.

First, my seat was moved to the back of the classroom. Then...was it only my imagination? raised hand was ignored, and I would often be skipped over when every girl would have a chance to read or answer questions. Once, another girl made Morah aware of the fact that I was skipped over, and she said, "That's fine. She won't know it anyway".

I stopped caring...stopped trying. I spent the year daydreaming and doodling in the margins of my Navi.

I was stupid. I couldn't keep up with the rest of the class. I was ugly. I didn't deserve to be liked.

Teachers today are taught the importance of accepting students as individuals, as people of infinite worth and value, as human beings worthy of the utmost respect.

But do they understand it? Do they understand the significance...the magnitude? Do they really know it? Do they comprehend the profound effect that they have over their students' sense of self worth and ability to succeed?

I gradually figured out that my brain worked fine for my English studies, but I wasn't bright enough to keep up with the Hebrew classes. And I didn't bother trying. I went through the next few years of school excelling in English, and mediocre, at best, in Hebrew. I got through elementary school, but the enjoyment was gone. The spark was extinguished.

It was a long time before I was able to forgive the teacher who, I felt, stole something so precious from me, and almost as long before I was able to reclaim that which I lost.

Kids are not born feeling good or bad about themselves. They learn this from what happens to them.

What an awesome responsibility!


  1. Very true and very scary. As a parent, I'm always scared that I don't fully know what's happening in my children's classrooms. We do our best, but we're not omniscient. And of course, we don't want to make these mistakes as parents either, even on a more subtle, subconscious level.

  2. Wow.. dredging up memories. I do believe (and HOPE) that things are different today. When I was in cheder, 30 years ago, I recall the way my rebbe acted. After lunch, he would take the empty milk cartons, and he would want to "flatten" them out before throwing it into the trash. This was the daily routine: He would put the cartons in middle of the floor, one by one. The fattest boy in the class (Yitzchok P.) would be called to the middle of the room, and the rebbe would say "Jump on it, Yitzchok!", and he would jump on them one by one, and the entire class would be laughing at the comical sight of this fat kid jumping up and down in middle of the room. I still remember his expression...

    Would this happen today? Were they more "cruel" then? Just ignorant? Did it "hurt" less back them? In an onscene way, could it be that this boy actually GAINED from overcoming that? I wonder...

  3. It's so true, we need to show love, and have confidence in children so they can do well.

  4. Staying Afloat...

    We can never fully know what's happening in our childrens' lives, but we do know what's happening at home. We also have tremendous power...but that's a whole nother post.


    I don't believe something like that ever hurt less. Did he gain from that? Maybe. But was it worth the pain?


    Kids thrive on love. That's our job.

  5. I was talking to a friend of mine, and he tells me he's delighted with his son's rebbe. He said that at PTA he asked a simple question, and knowing the answer to that question proved he was a dedicated rebbe. The question was simple: "What color eyes dows my son have?" The rebbe knew. Its a good point. If a rebbe is truly dedicated, he gets to "really" know his pupils....

  6. Anon...

    In that case, I'd make a terrible teacher.
    I think some people are just more observant than others, and it has nothing to do with how much they care.
    I'd rather the rebbe knew my son...inside. What makes him sad, what excites him, what interests him...

  7. Really true, about kids looking up to teachers, and thinking of themselves the way their teacher treats them. I so remember admiring my teachers, and having that one teacher that I hated. I also had a harder time with Hebrew subjects, especially in HS, the learning inside, with all the meforshim, and knowing who said what, and what all the Hebrew words mean, was too much for me. I always did better with just remember concepts. I loved learning Chumash, just to come up with questions on the pesukim and then finding deep beautiful answers to answer them.

  8. Good post..

    You cannot compare the education I received and that which my kids are getting.
    My elementary school experience was a forgettable smackerama. I never got the feeling that any of my Rebbeim ever cared for me.

    My kids are actually happy to go to school.