To Be A Rebbe, Part II
By Rabbi Yitzie Ross
Occasionally, the article I write generates a lot of conversation (which is a polite way of saying controversy). The last article I wrote regarding young rebbeim was one such article. Although many people agreed with what I wrote, I received quite a few interesting e-mails over the past few days. I will respond to a few of them this week, and we’ll continue the regular article next week.
Q: I am what you might call a young rebbe. I spend hours preparing and learning from other rebbeim, and B’H I have been having an amazing year. I felt that in your article, you were generalizing tremendously. There are many fantastic aspects that fresh blood brings to the table.
A Local Rebbe
A: During an average week, I have one or two boys come to me, complaining that “Someone called me stupid.” After reassuring him that I will deal with it, I ask, “If someone called you a three-legged mongoose, would that bother you?” When he says “no,” I continue: “That’s because you’re not a three-legged mongoose. Now, since you’re not stupid either, that shouldn’t bother you either.”
The same applies here. The article was not focused only on young rebbeim. It was directed at yeshivas that allow parents to run the school, parents that are overprotective, and young rebbeim who don’t yet have (or are attempting to acquire) classroom-management skills. You seem to be an excellent rebbe and are constantly improving yourself, and therefore the last topic doesn’t apply to you.
Regarding the “generalizing” point, this is an article that is read by thousands of people, B’H. I am discussing the general topic of parenting and Yiddishkeit, so yes, I will be generalizing. It’s not ever intended to insult or offend anyone, chas v’shalom.
Q: I’ve noticed that you seem to be defending older rebbeim. My son had a rebbe in yeshiva that turned him off to Yiddishkeit. These rebbeim need to go if they can’t understand children and the importance of showing love.
A: You brought up a number of points in this e-mail, and I’ll try to respond to each one.
- I am not defending “older rebbeim.” There are many older rebbeim (especially some of mine when I was a kid) that have no business being in a classroom. However, there are many rebbeim that, while they might not be the warmest, or offer the biggest smiles, they have a good understanding of your child, and the critical skills he needs in order to learn on a higher level. However, even if a rebbe doesn’t smile a lot or isn’t super-warm, he needs to somehow convey to his talmidim that he cares about them as people—not just their technical proficiency.
- I’ve heard from a few parents that a specific rebbe “turned their child off.” That’s not a common scenario. More often than not, there were underlying issues that came to the fore with this rebbe. If the home is a solid and safe place, filled with a simchas ha’chaim towards Yiddishkeit, then one bad rebbe should not have such a disastrous effect. In any case, if a rebbe is having such a negative effect, and the yeshiva doesn’t get involved, something is seriously wrong.
- Your last point is certainly correct. If any rebbe cannot understand children, does not show love, and doesn’t seem to be improving, he should be shown the door.
Q: If my memory serves me well, you taught my son in seventh grade, when you were 20 years old. He had a great year, but you did not have a green thumb. What steps did you take to improve over the years?
A: I remember your son well. First of all, it was a different generation 20 years ago. The parents were less involved, and the administration was more supportive of the rebbeim. I spent my summers meeting with professional mechanchim, and my afternoons sitting in on other classes. I worked on my curriculum continuously, always looking for ways to improve the lessons in a way that would most benefit the class.
Being a rebbe or teacher is not just a static job, it’s a lifelong commitment. It requires continuous preparation, effort, and the ability to adapt to each new class (and generation). Additionally, while it’s always advisable to do what you love, it is an absolutely fundamental requirement in order to be a successful rebbe or morah. You must be enthusiastic about your role as a mechanech and love teaching children in order to be able to do your job.
Q: I’m a parent of three children in various yeshivos. Are you suggesting that I not be involved in their education?
A: I wrote, “Parents call and complain that their children are not coming home happy.” The problem is threefold.
- Parents should definitely be involved in their children’s education. However, they shouldn’t be so quick to always defend their children. When your child comes home and says, “My rebbe is giving too much work,” it shouldn’t be an excuse to get all annoyed at the rebbe. You should tell your child, “I’ll speak to the rebbe—you focus on acting like a ben Torah and getting good grades.” In other words, let your child know you care, but don’t necessarily take his side. Remember, getting good grades is the end result—your child’s job should be to try his hardest.
- The use of WhatsApp and other social media has harmed many rebbeim and teachers horribly. What starts off as an innocent question, “Does anyone have the rebbe’s homework?” quickly spirals out of control. “How come rebbe is so unorganized?!” It is inadvisable for parents to have a class chat without the rebbe and teacher in on it. In my class this year, the teacher and I are the admins, and it’s B’H very helpful. Parents are able to ask a question and quickly receive a response, without it turning into a lashon ha’ra/complaint fest.
- The most important issue, in my opinion, is the complaints. Let’s imagine that your son came home and said, “The rebbe called me an idiot!” Nowadays, the parents call up the menahel and let loose. The next day the menahel calls in the rebbe and says, “A parent called and complained that you called their son an idiot.”
There are so many things wrong with the above scenario.
- The rebbe was not contacted to verify the story. Maybe he told the boy, “That’s an idiotic thing to do,” after the boy ran around stabbing boys with a pencil?
- Why not speak to the rebbe? Would you rather have a customer tell you of an issue they have with you, or go straight to your boss? Going over a rebbe’s head fosters a sense of distrust—not a good ingredient for chinuch.
- You can tell your son, “Name-calling is absolutely unacceptable . . . though I wonder what led up to this event.” Give him the opportunity to elaborate on the details, remembering to take everything with the proverbial grain of salt.
Q: Last week’s article brought up an issue that I have as a rebbe. What if I don’t love a boy in my class? Somehow, he gets under my skin, and I don’t think I’m giving him a fair shake.
Anonymous in Far Rockaway
A: I am trying to stay away from these questions. However, it’s surprising how many questions I received that were similar to yours. The answer to your question is long, and I won’t go into detail in this article. I will, however, share my initial thoughts.
Part of being a rebbe is finding the beauty in every talmid. While there are children that can act annoying, and even those who drive you crazy (or their parents do), you need to search for their special talent or middah. I can assure you, the child knows he’s not loved. You need to go out of your way to give him positive attention, and make him understand that you care. If you just can’t do it, this may sound harsh, but there are a lot of jobs out there that may be more suitable. Being a rebbe is a privilege.
Rav Dessler says in Michtav M’Eliyahu, the root of “ahavah”—love—derives from the word “hav,” which means to give. The more you give, the more you come to love someone. That’s why Hashem created babies to be so dependent on their parents. The more we give them, the more feelings of love are created. At first, the giving might be “forced,” but the more you go out of your way to help this particular child (calling on them, extra smiles, a pat on the shoulder, etc.), the more you can learn to, and will, love them for who they are. You can be the one who will start him on the path to success!
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for the weekly e‑mails and read the comments, you can visit www.yidparenting.com.