July 15, 2024
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July 15, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Building and Solidifying the Classroom Community

“Keep calm; winter break is coming!” A narrative we teachers joke about as we get closer to a well deserved break. In truth though, while we are looking forward to our break, this is genuinely the most wonderful time of year in the classroom, as your students have begun to settle into a comfortable routine and your class has truly solidified into its own community, with each child hopefully finding their niche within the class. Meaningful learning is strong as students are feeling connected, believed in, cared for, and brave enough to share their authentic selves with the class community. A beautiful, well coordinated symphony emerges, as each student seamlessly takes on his/her role with ease and confidence.

As I take a step back to reflect, I am struck by the process it has taken to reach this point. Each year anew, we walk in, with about 20 new individuals, tasked with making those individuals feel like a cohesive group. How do we get here each year?

As the opportunity arose for me to write this article, I endeavored to define for myself what it is that spurs this process along. While each teacher has their own method that speaks personally to them, I wanted to share my fundamentals, my cornerstones that I use to attempt to reach this place again and again.

As always, the Torah is where we can find the fundamentals of anything and everything about life, and this topic does not disappoint. Perhaps my favorite story is the conversation that Hashem has with Moshe Rebbeinu by the burning bush that is not burning down (an important piece that is often forgotten!) In that conversation, Hashem is giving Moshe his mission to lead klal Yisroel. When taking a closer glimpse at the text, one can see that Hashem is not just giving Moshe a mission, rather, He is teaching Moshe Rebbeinu the fundamentals of leadership. At one point, Moshe Rabbeinu responds to Hashem saying, “הם לא יאמינו לי” “They will not believe me,” referring to the Bnei Yisroel. Hashem responds by giving Moshe three signs to be able to perform in front of them. As Rashi explains, two of these signs serve as a hint for Moshe Rebbeinu that he spoke lashon hara about the Jewish people. If we delve deeper into this, we see that Hashem is not punishing Moshe here, rather, Hashem is teaching him a fundamental lesson about being an effective leader.

To understand this message, we must first understand lashon hara and what it’s truly about. If we jump ahead to another famous story, the story of the meraglim, the spies, we again encounter lashon hara. But this case gets interesting. The meraglim spend 40 days in Eretz Canaan, come back, and speak lashon hara about the land. Rashi explains, we are punished for 40 years in the desert, corresponding to the 40 days the meraglim spent in Eretz Cannan.

A fascinating question arises. The meraglim spoke lashon hara for a mere few minutes, perhaps an hour at most. Why, then, are we punished for the entire time they are in Eretz Canaan? Our deeper message lies in this answer. The Michtav MeEliyahu explains beautifully, saying that lashon hara is just the actualization of a middah. What middah? The middah of having an ayin raah, a bad eye. In fact if we look at the famous pasuk, “מי האיש החפץ חיים  אוהב ימים לראות טוב נצור לשונך מרע ושתפתיך מדבר מרבה סור מרע ועשה טוב בקש שלום ורודפיהו” we can see a recipe, a recipe for success so that we won’t come to speaking lashon hara. The pasuk says, “lirot tov”—“to see/find the good.” And that, my friends, is the secret to not speaking lashon hara. If we see the good in people, we will not speak badly of them because there is nothing bad to say, but if we are only looking for the bad, we will find it, and ultimately speak lashon hara. The meraglim went into Eretz Canaan with an ayin raah—they were looking for the bad—for 40 days. Yes, the lashon hara may have taken only a few minutes to impart, but the damage was done long ago when they adapted a negative mindset.

As we come back to Sefer Shmot, we perhaps can now understand the deeper message of leadership that Hashem was saying to Moshe. I imagine it may have sounded something like this: “Moshe! If you are to be a leader of a nation, you must believe in them, you must see the good in them. If you are already assuming the worst is them, before you even meet them, there is no way for you to succeed.”

Moshe Rabbeinu, the paradigm for leadership, is being taught an invaluable lesson here, a lesson that as educators is so fundamental to our role as teachers. Believe in each student. Find the good in them. If you can’t, stay up at night thinking until you can. It is the only path to successful teaching. Whether you are in front of them, or speaking to another colleague out of earshot, a positive view must always be cultivated. A student knows and feels when someone does not believe in them; even if you are careful not to say anything negative in front of them, they know how you feel. If you don’t believe me, ask them. They themselves can tell you which teachers in their past and present have believed in them and which don’t. As adults, we are wired similarly. Numerous studies abound citing individual work performance corresponding to whether the employee feels they are believed in by their employer. Simon Sinek, a famous inspirational speaker, speaks about this at length.

As we lay the cornerstones each year for our new crew, the first brick must be “believe in each student.” From there, we can build authentic connection and eventually meaningful learning. Sometimes, we feel so rushed to begin and get actual learning done right away. Especially if Yom Tov is early and there is genuinely a lot to do in a very short amount of time.

I urge you not to skip this step.

As we head into the season of light, may we continue to be zoche to bring true light to our beloved students as we endeavor to find the potential and the good in each one of them. Happy Chanukah!


Chana Greenberg has been teaching at RYNJ for the past 13 years. She is a fifth grade morah, as well as a learning center specialist for middle school students. She can be reached at [email protected].

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