Moral Relationships in Jewish Schools

When we teachers and administrators guide students every day, our unstated tone and subtle body language may contribute more to our relationships with our students than what we actually say out loud. When we look directly at students, wave hello in the halls and ask how they are doing with the intention of listening to their response, we build trust. Conversely, when we turn our backs, ask students to send us an email, put them off somehow, or offer sarcasm and irony, we put distance between our students and us. We may even get a laugh sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that we have earned their trust.

Our students don’t always earn our trust because they test us: They speak out of turn and claim not to have remembered a due date or an element of an assignment; they ask to use the restroom and take their phones with them; they pretend a need to visit the nurse.

We have to remember, though, that just as it’s in our blood and in our job description to guide students, it’s in their blood to test their adults’ patience, subject matter knowledge and moral fiber. It is our role to take the high moral road even when they test us so that they can take us seriously when we make a moral claim and so that they can take our relationships seriously.

Over the course of research that I conducted at several Prizmah schools and at other independent non-sectarian, all boys, all girls, Roman Catholic and Quaker schools in connection with the Sylvia and Moshe Ettenberg Research Grant from the Network for Research in Jewish Education, I saw trust-building and strong relationships emerging in classrooms, and, most profoundly, I observed teachers leveraging a moral relationship with their students in a variety of contexts, from math and social studies classes to physical education and a prayer group sitting under a tree.



What did you notice?

In a third grade math class at a progressive Northeast Jewish day school, students were invited to come to the board to show that they could count by threes and anticipate the ninth student’s answer in the sequence. While one student repeatedly added the number three nine times, another stood with a meter stick and counted each time she saw a multiple of three. One created an equation, while Talia (all names are pseudonyms), a recent Israeli arrival in the United States, completed the problem in Hebrew and then discovered to her delight that she had taken the same approach as one of her English-speaking classmates.

The teachers, Caden and Chana, commended each solution to the problem, modeling pluralism by taking an open-ended approach that invited and validated multiple perspectives. The guiding question was, “What did you notice?” focusing on the method and not on a closed solution. Caden invited students to admire one another’s differences without criticizing whether one approach was “better” than another. In this mathematics lesson, the students experienced one another and truly heard one another as budding and resourceful mathematicians. Teachers were nurturing collegial relationships among the classmates that spawned acceptance, inclusion and mutual admiration.



What if?

When a sixth-grade language arts teacher at a Midwestern Modern Orthodox Jewish day school, Mrs. Abbott, took a “What if?” approach, she showed her students a video of a basketball game in which a player with Down Syndrome is assisted by a member of the opposing team when he shoots for a basket. The students watched the video, imagining, “What if the world were more kind?” One boy pointed out that the player holding the ball might have been called out for traveling, but that the “ref didn’t call him on it,” so the spirit of sportsmanship was more important than the particular rule.

The students tried to imagine a kinder world as they discussed some of the moral precepts in the young adult novel Wonder. Each student found a precept that they found meaningful and painted the words in a decorative fashion on a rock; one student chose, “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” In choosing these moral teachings and in committing them to paint, Mrs. Abbott led them in expressing hopes for meaningful relationships with one another that would have moral meaning beyond the moment.


“High five!”

The athletic director at a Reform Jewish day school in the Southeast, Liam Brennan, embraced the Jewish values of the school, seeing himself in a mentoring role with his students, helping them to fulfill the vision of le-dor va-dor, from generation to generation. Having moved from a Vermont farm to the Southeast, Mr. Brennan’s youth was very different from that of his students, but he has developed strong relationships by seeing each student as an athlete in their own right. He recounted for me, “Every day is like my first day!” He makes sure to learn his students’ names. He watches for them and he knows how to make them feel seen, “giving the kid a high five even if they’re not an athlete.”

Knowing that the athletics program exists not so much to create state champions as to instill team spirit and opportunities for personal growth through sport, he emphasizes the ethics of teamwork and good judgment. He’d rather see the students take aim and shoot from the line from a position of modesty; he is mistrustful of “razzle dazzle” and fancy moves that don’t advance sportsmanship or good play. The coach-player and player-player relationships are most important because those relationships allow for mentoring, role modeling, generosity and humility. He concluded, “We don’t need another basketball player in the world; we need good kids.”



“Wow! Thanks! Help!”

Jewish day school educators know the challenges of asking young people to pray, and there are myriad reasons behind those challenges, including the complexities of praying in Hebrew as a foreign language; the elusive task of finding sacred space in school buildings; making room for sacred time in busy schedules; and asking students to express emotions and to give voice to words that feel archaic, or, at best, out of place in the hustle and bustle of a school day.

In a Reform Jewish day school, I learned from the director of the drama program, Caitlin Barr, that students put together a “Rock Shabbat,” setting prayers from the traditional liturgy to rock tunes from the Backstreet Boys and other groups. One of the Jewish studies teachers, himself a Jew by choice, has his students create an online prayer book to which they can add new material every year as they grow from their lower school into their middle school years, including creative writing in response to various prompts from one year to another, memories from their class trip to Israel, and spiritual reflections. He described the portfolios as “relational and playful” because the students express their relationships with one another and with God through media and spontaneous self-expression.

At a pluralistic, community school in the Northeast, Alon, the school’s Jewish life team leader and madrich ruchani/spiritual director, led some middle school students from their indoor in-the-round stepped prayer space to a grassy spot under a tree just outside the school’s front door. As they sat, the teacher in a conversation about three approaches to prayer, Wow!, Thanks!, and Help!, encouraging the students to experience the daily morning prayer, Baruch She-amar (“Praised is the one who spoke”) as encompassing these three approaches at once:

Wow: How beautiful is your creation;

Thanks: For this beautiful world and for the crops;

Help: Can you help them grow a little more?

Alon pointed out to the students that “the great earth” makes us say “Wow!”; we express our gratitude and say “Thanks!,” and we should use this time for prayer to find the motivation to help the earth and not just to ask God to fix it. By engaging his students in a thoughtful discussion by a tree, sitting on the grass with them, he modeled a positive teacher-student relationship and led the students toward a positive relationship with God or, for some students, their own conscience.



Teachers have the capacity to develop moral relationships with their students, sharing ideas, concerns, values and hopes. These moral relationships should be treasured because they reflect an experience closer to the I-Thou relationship described so thoughtfully by Martin Buber in his landmark work of theology, I and Thou. There are limits to a transactional, I-It relationship between a teacher and student that is focused on grades and on the exchange of information needed for a test. But, as Maimonides teaches in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Torah Study, learning and performing good in the world are essential in human life, and they are essential in the teacher-student and parent-child relationship. In this era, in which virtual learning and online relationships easily substitute for in-person learning and for face-to-face interactions, it is clear that learning has a better chance at enduring when moral relationships between teachers and students are at the core of learning.

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HaYidion Spring 2023: Relationships
Spring 2023