Heaven's Work


by Baila Olidort - NEWARK, NJ

August 13, 2003

Moshe Loewenthal teaches 12-year-old boys Talmud at Yeshiva College in Melbourne, Australia. He’s seen the variety of clinical categories branding students with one disability or another, but he rejects the widespread use of Ritalin to suppress hyperactivity. “Children don’t have faults,” he explains. “They have personalities. I need to work with each child’s personality—and to see it is an asset, not a problem. The question for me," he says, “is how to do that effectively.”

More than just a fresh approach to an endemic “problem” in the classroom, Loewenthal’s perspective reflects a sobering recognition that is paving the way to new pedagogical sensibilities: instead of medicating children to enhance classroom decorum, classroom environment must be redesigned to enhance the child’s learning experience.

It is this kind of thinking that permeated the conference halls at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, New Jersey, on August 11-12, and that prompted Moshe to travel halfway around the world for the two-day conference on education. A conscientious teacher, Moshe participates at educational conferences in Australia, but, he says, “It’s really only here—at the Chabad-Lubavitch Chinuch Conference—where my objectives as an educator are most directly challenged.”

Sponsored by the Chinuch Office, a project of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch—the Lubavitch educational division, the conference (a parallel conference for women educators was held in July)—drawing some 130 educators nationally and from as far away as South America, Europe and Australia, was tightly focused on examining applied responses to classroom situations, specifically concerning teachers and principals in Jewish day school and yeshiva settings. The presenters—experts each in their respective fields of education and psychology—explored themes along elementary and high school tracks through a series of workshops, roundtable discussions and seminars.

Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, director of the Chinuch Office developed the Conference with a keen eye for “the burning issues that need to be addressed.” Among these are the variety of dysfunctional behaviors that, he admits, yeshiva students are not immune to. “Teachers in our schools must know how to recognize distress signals of students who are suffering some form of abuse,” he says. “And they need to know how to respond to such problems in an effective and sensitive way.” The conference theme, he notes, “Beyond the Limitations of the Classroom” speaks to the teacher’s role outside of the classroom because effective management “must extend beyond the classroom if we are to address the child as a whole individual.”

In his presentation on Active Participation in the Classroom: Instructional Strategies to Engage All the Students, Dr. Dovid Jacobson, an educational consultant from Los Angeles, encouraged educators to reconstruct the mindset by which students are categorized either good or bad, and recognize their unique personalities as something that needs to be developed and that can contribute to a healthy learning environment.

Dr. James Cordle, a psychologist in private practice, shared his expertise in behavior modification theory and application towards “Raising Cooperative and Confident Students.” Offering very concrete methods to dealing with the disruptive student, Cordle led participants through realistic, familiar classroom scenarios demonstrating minimalist intervention, and, through the use of body language and verbal articulation, highly effective teacher-student communication techniques.

“There was a very strong emphasis, with a real pragmatic approach to helping each child develop their fullest potential as a unique individual,” says Rabbi S. Z. Twerski, a teacher and program director at a yeshiva in Chicago. He points to a presentation by Stanley Fishman, principal of the Westchester Hebrew Day School, which, in stark contrast to traditional classroom etiquette that forces a child to fit a certain form or fall between the cracks, placed the onus on the teacher “to create a classroom environment that makes children feel comfortable and enhances their ability to learn.”

A principal at Cheder Lubavitch, a 300-student yeshiva in Chicago, and Dean of the local Lubavitch Mesivta, Rabbi M. B. Perlstein brainstormed with fellow principals through working lunches and late-night dinners, hammering out challenges unique to the principal. Among the topics examined were issues of confidentiality as pertains to teenagers, and how to successfully win a consensus among staff members so that they “feel ownership of ideas.”

Developing Talmud skills, thinking skills, and rekindling a passion for study were some of the themes explored by panelists and mesivta—yeshiva high school principals. The sessions were very substantive and wonderfully practical,” says Rabbi Perlstein, who would like to see next year’s conference expand to include higher education.

Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, addressed the educators—Chabad-Lubavitch Shluchim all, representing 50 educational institutions—with words of inspiration and insight from the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s ideas on education. He reminded the educators that the Rebbe always referred to the teacher’s task as “Heaven’s work,” and that traditionally, the teacher not only imparted knowledge to his students, but inculcated a love and awe of Heaven in the hearts of his students. “The teacher achieves his objectives through a genuine love and concern for the student, and it is for this reason that tradition confers the status of a parent on the teacher.”

It's a thought that saddles teachers with more responsibility than most would bargain for, but judging from the consensus in the audience, it was a point well taken.

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