Betzelem Elohim: From Mission Statement to Disciplinary Policy

The mission statements of Jewish day schools have consistent themes: love of Judaism, connection to the Jewish people, excellent education, biblical values, ethical treatment of others and tikkun olam. In short, the mission of all Jewish day schools is helping to create the next generation of Jewishly involved and connected mentsches. But how does a school react and respond when a student violates these tenets? How does a school discipline its students in keeping with its mission statement? All of our JDS leadership teams (board, head, principal, etc.) rightly spend many hours arguing over each word of the mission statement, yet how much time does the school spend discussing and understanding the implementation of the mission statement through their disciplinary approach, ensuring that the approach is in sync with the mission statement?

Similar to Jewish day schools around the nation, the mission of the New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS), located in West Hills, California, is to “raise up a new generation of Jewish leaders for whom Jewish values and tradition shape and guide their vision, and for whom knowledge creates possibilities for moral action, good character, and shalom.” Using the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) as a guide, this mission has been translated into six qualities that comprise our “ideal” graduate, including the ability to make “wise decisions” and knowing a “big thing from a small thing.”

We have a deep-seated commitment to the idea that when a student makes a mistake that requires disciplinary action, it is a moment to teach and educate, not a moment to simply punish and penalize. In these moments, when students are at their most vulnerable, we can have the deepest impact on their future ability to make “wise decisions” and know the difference between a “big thing and a small thing.”

Through the following approaches, discipline can be moved out of the penalty/retribution sphere and into the educational realm, where it will have a much longer and more profound impact.

What is Discipline?

“Train a child in the way he [should] go; and, even when old, he will not swerve from it.” Proverbs 22:6

Although the word “discipline” comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means “instruction given, teaching, learning, and knowledge,” discipline has evolved to be understood more for the punishment than for the learning. That then begs the question, does punishment work? Our prisons are overflowing with a clear answer in the negative. Punishment for the sake of vengeance only leads to high degrees of recidivism and does not result in an understanding of why the original actions were wrong and why not to repeat those actions in the future.

Instead, a strategy that incorporates the mission of teaching knowledge (not information) for the sake of moral action is a key component of our approach. When a student is brought to us, the first question is never “What did you do wrong?” or “Why are you in trouble?” Instead, we begin with the simple prompt, “Tell me why we are talking.” By putting the onus on students and allowing them to verbalize the situation, what they did, and why they did it, the student can internalize their role much more than if a teacher or administrator is telling them the exact same thing. This conversation is followed up with the next logical question: “Tell me why your actions are a problem,” or “How did your actions contradict the values of our school?”

The final part of the conversation is, “What do you think would be the appropriate response to your actions?” Most of the time, students will select a consequence that naturally flows from their transgression. This may be the most important part of the entire sequence. What is a reasonable and a natural consequence will help solidify the lesson that the student clearly needs to learn. Imposing a harsh penalty that satisfies the natural desire to punish and “hurt” the student so they never make the same mistake always feels good at the moment and may temporarily teach the student a lesson, but if the consequence flows directly from the transgression, and the student is part of the process of determining the consequence, the lesson can be much longer lasting.

A Calm and Reasoned Approach

The Talmud teaches us not to discipline when angry, because at that moment we are not being objective and our actions at that time should only be for the sake of the child (Moed Katan 17a).

As Dov Seidman in his book How beautifully puts it, how we approach any situation is as, if not more, important than what we do in that situation. Students know that they have transgressed when they are sitting in the dean of student/principal/head of school’s office. They know they have disappointed. They are probably already upset and embarrassed and, as children, may not know how to react properly in that situation. It is always much easier to teach the student what they did wrong, why it is wrong, and explore ways for them to make teshuvah if the adult approaches the student with a calm demeanor. Anger is the only enemy in this situation and is in opposition to our Jewish texts and the educational approach those texts require. As educators, we would never teach a class through anger and tyranny; we know that is counterproductive. Why should the disciplinary arena be any different?

Betzelem Elohim

In the image of God was humanity made. (Genesis 9:6) Beloved is Israel for they are called God’s children.” Pirkei Avot 3:14

How we approach and talk to each student will also have a major impact on the outcome of this process. We approach every disciplinary situation with the belief that the student is a worthy, valuable member of our community. In this way, we have truly internalized the quote from the Torah which allows us to look at every student we deal with as a good person, someone who may have made a mistake but who is made in the image of God. This approach completely changes the tone and tenor of the conversation and lets the child know that we believe in them and their potential instead of always “looking” for our students to trip up and make a mistake.

Central to this approach is the belief that there is no “us” and “them” in this discussion; we are all on the same side of the equation. “We” were made all made in the image of God; removing the “us” and “them” from the conversation makes everyone part of the solution. This includes bringing the parents into the conversation. Some independent entity called “us” is not punishing “them”; instead, our team (administrators, teachers, occasionally the school counselor, the student and the parent[s]) work together to understand what happened, why it happened, and most importantly, how to teach the student the important lessons from this incident. An important component of this approach is a deliberate effort to avoid embarrassing the student. While humiliation may feel good and public shaming may be a lesson to other students, it is akin to murder (Bava Metzia 58b-59a) and should always be avoided.

Context Matters

“Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events,” Robert Penn Warren wrote in All the King’s Men. Because context matters, the consequence for one child who might have committed the same act may be different in each situation. Our text is replete with instructive examples. When Moshe struck the rock at Mount Horeb, he was treated more harshly for ignoring God’s instructions than others in the Torah who similarly ignored God’s instructions. This consequence was contextual due to Moshe’s position and the reasons he hit the rock (displaying anger in front of the people he was leading). Similarly, two students sent to the office for throwing food in the lobby and causing a mess might not warrant the same level of consequence.

In life, there is no such thing as “fair,” and trying to apply the same consequence for the same or similar transgression is not always the right approach. A plus B does not always equal C. While having a clear set of black and white rules and consequences makes the disciplinary process quicker, cleaner, and easier, it is not the best way to teach children. High school is the perfect time to start teaching young adults of the complexities of the concept of fairness, teaching them the difference between equality of results to equality of the process. Every student who may have transgressed is dealt with an equal manner. The procedures and substance of the process are fair and equal; the results, however, may be different.

If the approaches laid out above are followed, the administrator might find out that in one circumstance the student acted out because he was mad at a fellow classmate and lashed out in anger at that person. The other student might have just learned that his grandparent had passed away and reacted, poorly, but in a moment of extreme sadness. If bright-line rules and consequences were applied, the two students would have the same consequence. We believe this would not be the correct educational response. To be clear, we are not advocating for less or even the lack of consequences; instead this approach is trying to fit the most meaningful consequence to the child, their mistake, and their individual circumstances. And, in general, the greater the misbehavior affects the community as a whole, the greater the consequence.

This disciplinary policy is not easy, quick or clean, but the results of the last 13 years have validated our methodology. A more traditional approach is definitely quicker. With this tactic, the investigation and punishment phase usually happen at the same time, the student walks away chastised and punished while the administrator feels better for having imposed punishment on the student. In our approach, there are usually multiple conversations with the student and parents trying to understand what happened and why it happened. We look at the individual and weigh the impact of the transgression on the individual against the impact the transgression may have had on our community. We then work collaboratively to explore what the natural and appropriate consequences should be.

The time we have invested in this process has proven to be extremely valuable. Through this we have helped created, leshem shamayim (in the name of heaven), a culture of trust among the school, students and parents when disciplinary situations arise. Working together, we strive to use this disciplinary process to create a meaningful, educational and long-term lesson for the student and our community as a whole—and, in the end, fulfill our core mission of “raising up a new generation of Jewish leaders whose vision is shaped by Jewish values.”♦

Mark H. Shpall JD is the dean of students, AP Government teacher and director of community programming at the New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, California. [email protected]

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