Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Education of Children and Students
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

A Jewish Approach to Discipline in the Classroom

1. A Hands-On Approach 2. The Role of Trust and Love 3. Factoring In Personality 4. Student Character Types 5. Identifying the Causes


Rabbi David Samson

Iyar 5761
Note: The content of this article is not based on any psychology texts or research studies, which are sometimes somewhat limiting, but on personal experience alone.

1. A Hands-On Approach
2. The Role of Trust and Love
3. Factoring In Personality
4. Student Character Types
5. Identifying the Causes

A Hands-On Approach
In Torah education, there is room for the use of punishment: For the Jew, however, the basic principle in matters of discipline is :"The Left Hand Pushes Aside, While the Right One Brings Closer." It should be noted that these days, physically punishing a student does not tend to bear much fruit. The great "Chazon Ish" noted that, despite the fact that the Torah permits dealing harshly with heretics, Jews who are distant from their religious roots these days must be brought closer by way of love and understanding.

I experienced the Torah principle of the "right hand bringing closer and the left distancing" in my life. In my first year of Yeshiva, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook (of Blessed Memory) would give a "closed class" to a number of select students (including Rabbi Chaim Druckman, Rabbi Eliezer Waldman, Rabbi Chaim Shteiner, etc.) One time, I was privy to information that in the upcoming shiur , Rav Tzvi Yehuda would read some of his father's (Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook's) writings, articles that had not yet been published; in these pieces Rav Kook apparently spoke of himself. I really wanted to hear what he had to say, but I knew that if I were to come to class, Rav Tzvi Yehuda would refrain from reading the articles.

So what did I do? I stood on the other side of the door, and I began to listen to Rav Tzvi Yehuda's rendition of these passages. In the middle of the recitation, I noticed a sudden silence. Within seconds, there he was, Rav Tzvi Yehuda, standing over me - me, with my ear still glued to the door. He took a hold of me with his right hand - in an affectionate "bear hug" - and then lightly "smacked" me with his left hand. Here it was, the literal application of "the right hand drawing me closer, while the left pushed me away".

That same year, the late Rav Shlomo Goren issued his now-famous lenient ruling in a case involving the halachic issue of mamzerut . Although many great rabbis were opposed to his ruling, Rav Tzvi Yehuda supported him. I went to ask him why he sided with Rav Goren on this issue. Rav Tzvi Yehuda was angry with my challenge, and as he was harshly reproving me, he embraced me with his right hand, and hit me with his left.

The Role of Trust and Love
The two key foundations of education are trust and love. The greater the belief in, and love for, the student on the part of the teacher, the greater the ability of the teacher to implement effective disciplinary measures. Put another way, the more the right hand brings closer, the more effective "the left hand that repels".

I am not referring here to an artificial demonstration of trust; the teacher must express a true sense of trust and belief in the child's potential to grow and develop. When I was in sixth grade, my teacher used to occasionally smack me across the face. One day, he even said, "One day you’ll thank me for this".

Years later, I saw him on the street, came up to him, and thanked him. I then explained to him why I was thanking him. Since this teacher showed me that he cared for me and had great trust in me, he knew that even if he were to strike me on occasion, I would "recover" from the trauma. A teacher who does not follow the Torah's guidance on this matter is guilty of delivering "a wicked stroke"; the Torah calls such a punishment - "an enemy".

Practically speaking, when a teacher shows trust in, and love for, his students, discipline problems usually do not arise. As such, love and trust really preempt discipline problems; if such problems do on occasion develop, however, punishment can be discreetly and effectively used.

Factoring In Personality
When I was in ninth grade, I had a teacher who refused to come into class until everyone was completely silent. His stare would instill fear in us, even though he never punished us. There are teachers who are such "serious" people, that you wouldn’t dare cross them. Once, Rav Weiss was giving a general talk, and he said something like, "I hope that by Succoth, we will already be in the new building." This comment evoked a few scattered bursts of laughter, since that hope had been expressed continuously by himself and others for several years. Suddenly, Rav Weiss responded with a booming, "Excuse me"!?
I was so impressed by his control over the students, I once tried to use the same technique - but to no avail.
It seems, then that the effectiveness of a given approach depends largely on who the teacher is. A serious strong personality usually commands students' respect.

Student Character Types
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, in his famous work, Mesilat Yesharim , writes that people with a deep sense of their purpose in life naturally strive to perfect themselves; these people do not need to be warned of the punishment that misbehavior may bring. Thus, in class, a teacher may well be able to exclaim, "Michael??!!" - and the student immediately understands that the teacher expects more of him.

There are, however, other people who are motivated by kavod , or honor. When I was younger, I had a classmate who was playing with a ball during a lesson. As a punishment, the teacher told him to stand in the trash bin with the ball in his mouth. This kind of discipline "toys with" with the student's sense of personal honor. This same teacher had many creative, original techniques. Once he told a student to sit on top of the lockers - that didn’t exactly reach the ceiling - and to sit there until the end of the class. Sometimes, however, this kind of approach can lead to punishments that are not educationally sound. I recall of how once, one of my teachers asked a student to stand up on a table and tell jokes. The student's parents were incensed, and the teacher was soon fired.

Sometimes the dynamics of the student-teacher relationship are different. There are students who enjoy daring the powers-that-be to catch them. With this kind of student, the approach must be different; the teacher must always have his "staff" in hand. I have no experience with this kind of disciplinary approach, but it is the most common one in Israeli public schools. On the other hand, in Yeshiva L’tzi’irim, the most effective mode of discipline capitalizes on the student's striving for completeness and self-respect, and not on a threat of "external" punishment.

Should it be the goal of the educator to alter the character of the former type of student? In the framework of classes, it is difficult to change a student from someone preoccupied with reward and punishment to someone who responds to an appeal to self-respect. Sometimes, a guidance counselor will deal with such matters, but such a counselor must be an ethical person with a background in psychology, and perhaps most importantly - he or she must be a person who is capable of loving.

Identifying the Causes
A key element of the strategy of how to deal with common discipline problems is that before any treatment, we must identify what has prompted the student to behave as he does. Whole lists of possible causes could be cited, such as a lack of self-confidence, lack of interest, a desire for attention, exhaustion, lack of motivation, the location of the students’ place in class, etc.

I have over the years regularly set behavioral issues down in the form of a chart: how a given student fares in terms of attendance, attentiveness, relationships with other students, relationships with teachers, etc. If, for instance, the student has an attendance problem (this is quite common in Yeshiva L’tzi’irim, that a student chooses not to show up) the teacher should ask the student why he has decided not to come. Generally speaking, the youngster claims that he has a headache or stomach ache, etc. Sometimes, this is accurate; other times, it is true that the pupil has a headache, but this is not the reason that he failed to show up to class. Sometimes it takes a month or two to figure out the true reason; only the fourth time he is absent, do you remember that there are weekly soccer matches broadcast on the radio on Thursdays at 8 PM!

The same goes for late-comers; a student may come late to class for any number of reasons. Sometimes the reason simply is that he does not have a watch; other times, he comes late because he knows that the teacher won’t do anything to him if he does arrive late.

Attention problems are very common. Sometimes, however, two students are talking in class because one is explaining Tosfot’s question to his classmate. A good teacher will repeat each detail of the lesson. (He should not use the term, "I will repeat what I said"; personally, I am accustomed to say at the end of each unit: "In summary..." ) and to then review the previous steps of the logic. A good student may well be somewhat bored as a result, and the teacher should be sensitive to his needs, as well.

Before employing any disciplinary move, it behooves the teacher to speak to the student. It’s ideal to try to avoid punishment if at all possible. Sometimes, a student will talk in class because he is simply bored. He is a good student who prepared the material in the Beit Midrash beforehand, and already knows the material. The teacher is therefore to blame for the student’s talking, since the teacher is not challenging the student intellectually. It’s appropriate to deal with this kind of situation cautiously, since a harsh approach is likely to harm the teacher’s relationship with the youngster. In other cases, a student may chatter because he does not understand, and has simply lost his train of thought. It may be better for this latter type of pupil to go to sleep; each time he talks, you can punish him, but when he sleeps, you do not. (He’ll understand on his own which behavior is more feasible!) This, of course, is an ad-hoc solution. As I mentioned earlier, one must make every effort to discover the reason for the given behavior and to deal with the problem seriously. Sometimes, a student will sleep in class simply because he was used to sleeping many more hours when living and home, and not in a yeshiva dormitory. Alternatively, he may be experiencing intellectual or emotional overload, and his way of dealing with the pressure is to nod off.

In summation, sometimes sleeping in class is justifiable and sometimes it's not, and it is therefore inadvisable to automatically punish. At times, the student is not sleeping, but "floating" - which, in my view, is a problem of a different type. You ask him to close his book, and he does not respond. Occasionally, this stems from a derogatory attitude, or often, it is just a reflection of a personal character trait. It’s possible to get him involved by calling him by name: "I won’t start the class until Yitzchak opens his book." This kind of approach could certainly offend the student, so it's wise to judge each situation independently. (When it is clear to the student that the teacher loves him, there is little concern that the student will be peeved; on the other hand, there are certain types of students who are "tougher" - and aren’t easily offended).

Regarding standing up: There are certain students who are simply not able to sit 45 consecutive minutes in a class. As a result, they go to the bathroom, leave to get a book and the like. Here, too, we have to examine the reasons for the behavior. I once had a very "active" student who needed medication to calm him down, and if he forgot to take it, he would act wildly in class. It could also be that a student acts out because he wants attention.

Eating in class: I once had a student that who ate obsessively in class; all of my efforts were in vain. I once spent Shabbat with him, during which I even saw him scraping the remains of the cake from the plate. This lit a red light for me - and when I checked into this student’s history, I discovered that his parents denied him sweets when he was younger. This kind of a case obviously requires special attention.

"Idolatry" (" Avoda Zara "): Some students insist on doing - in your class - work from other classes. There are those that are chronically working on math during English class, and vice-versa. Sometimes this is because of a test they have on the same day, and sometimes they are just doing outside work, unrelated to school. I had one student who filled four notebooks with a novel that he wrote.

Interpersonal relations: Here we encounter completely different type of discipline problems. Many times, students will offend their friends - or even teachers. More serious than this, students sometimes steal. Many times, theft arises from a series of psychological problems. These days, psychologists often argue that a thief must receive something, since theft derives from a sense - on the part of the thief - that he is not "getting enough." Sometimes, theft derives from the student’s desire for attention; in this latter scenario, the student deliberately leaves "signs" of his crime so that he will be caught. Many times, students "carve" their names in several locations, they break windows, then begin to argue who pushed who first, etc. The reasons here could be anger towards the yeshiva, but sometimes, the incidents have no malicious intent.
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