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October 21, 2014 / 27 Tishri, 5775
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Teaching Students, Not Subjects

If a teacher thinks his task is merely “to teach” – that it is no great thing to teach, that “anybody can do that” -- he must immediately be set straight.

Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman

Rav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman
Photo Credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

If every teacher is to safeguard his students with such care, how much more negligent is it to expel a student from yeshiva? How much more negligent is it to treat such a soul in such a way that he or she will then remove himself or herself from our community?

That teacher should not think for even a moment that he will not be asked in the world to come, “Why did this young man leave the community? Why is this young woman no longer frum? Why is that young person on drugs?”

What will that teacher answer? What can he answer?

And in the gaping silence, he will be asked, “If this were your own son, would you have thrown him out? For that is what you should have thought at the time. This is like your son – your son!”

* * * * *

It is not enough to presume that because a child is attending yeshiva his home is filled with Yiddishkeit or that she is treated with love and respect. That is why each talmid must we watched closely and with care. The rebbi must be mindful of his charges; he must be mindful of everything. More important, he must teach with love and compassion, with a pleasant and joyous countenance. The way to treat students is with compassion and mercy, not rigidity and anger.

When I met with the faculties I had the privilege to lead, I always shared with them a simple truth: We all make mistakes. To err is human. And in almost every profession and circumstance, it is possible to make a mistake and then correct it. Except when it comes to a child or student we turned off by our negligence, inattention, or abuse.

When we extinguish the flame of learning in a young soul, it is not easily – if ever – relit. There very well may be no second chance.

There is no more important message a faculty can receive than to nurture that flame in every single student. And yet even when Rav Shteinman addressed his audience of hundreds of educators I can imagine there were those who listened impassively, all the while thinking to themselves, “It’s easy to talk about all that in the abstract. What about those of us in the classroom? What about us, the ones who have to deal with students who misbehave or act out?”

“What about the student who is immersed in the Internet?” a rebbi asked Rav Shteinman.

Such questions have merit, but it is astonishing to me how much of the ills of society are now blamed on the Internet. Of course the Internet poses many dangers and challenges. But were there no problems before the Internet?

So would Rav Shteinman have responded, “Of course throw out the student immersed in Internet! Of course throw out the student who acts out!” Or would he have asked, like Rav Ovadia Yosef, z”tl, “Whom are you throwing out? A rock? Some accumulated trash?”

Rav Ovadia knew the challenge of teaching in a classroom. When he confronted a rowdy, disruptive or uncooperative student he did not view that student as “the enemy” but rather as the unique being God intended. Rav Yosef was passionate in his defense of such students:

“Don’t throw them out. We are dealing with nefashos! This is dinei nefashos. Our rabbonim only addressed dinei nefashos when there was a Sanhedrin, 23 chachamim…. You throw him out and what will be with him then? You know what will be? Do you accept responsibility for what he will become?

“Therefore, you must love him and smother him with love – bnei Yisrael whose future is to become gedolei Yisrael. To bring them closer with sweet words…this is how we bring them into the Torah fold.”

Rav Shteinman responded similarly to the Internet question. Each student is to be considered on an individual basis; each situation demands discussion and analysis with a chacham.

The most important thing, he emphasized, was to not demean or demoralize (not to be me’zalzel ) any talmid, to never to dismiss any talmid as hopeless.

In his response, Rav Shteinman showed why he is a true gadol – a visionary who can see clearly and respond to the demands of the times.

About the Author: Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, author and lecturer. He can be reached at e1948s@aol.com.


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