It’s a quandary as old as the institution of formal schooling itself, the lament of teachers and the bane of students. Nowhere are the needs of the individual more effectively compromised than in the classroom setting where personal abilities invariably take a backseat to group decorum and median aptitudes.
But Rabbi Nochem Kaplan, head of the Education Office of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of the Lubavitch movement, has plans to finally cut this Gordian knot. “Sensitivity to the Individual and Special Needs of Our Children” was the theme of this year’s annual conferences of Chabad-Lubavitch educators. Billing it as the burning issue of the day for anyone who takes education seriously, Kaplan has been working methodically to affect a grassroots awareness of the possibilities for substantive changes in the schools.
One hundred and twenty educators representing yeshivas and Jewish day schools nationwide, in Canada and from as far away as Australia convened at the two day men’s conference this Monday and Tuesday, which followed a parallel women’s conference last month. As many teachers, principals and administrators participated at the women’s conference, and both were held at the Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, New Jersey, where widely regarded professionals in education spoke to the conference’s theme.
Dr. Ernest Stachowski, director of the Professional Development Center in Rancho Palos Verdes, Ca. devoted several seminars to techniques for greater student involvement. “He illustrated various methods that teachers might employ to make students want to become involved with what is going on in the classroom,” says Rabbi Mottel Friedman. As principal of the Lubavitch Mesivta (High School) of Minnesota, Friedman has a vested interest in seeing his teachers apply Stachowski’s techniques to classes on Talmud and the entire traditional yeshiva curriculum. Since he began working for the Mesivta six years ago, Friedman has made it his goal to respond to the individual difficulties of boys grades 9-11, who, for whatever reasons, were turned off to learning. To do this successfully, the yeshiva’s enrollment is limited to 30 students. This optimal student-teacher ratio makes it possible, he explains, “to build the yeshiva around the students instead of forcing them to fit into the yeshiva.”
It is this kind of creative enthusiasm for effective education that Friedman, among others, are implementing at Chabad yeshivas and day schools worldwide, and that Kaplan hopes will soon become the norm. “If anyone will be able to deal with individual needs,” he says, “Chabad-Lubavitch will.”
“We are training teachers to do this, we are creating an infrastructure of schools and institutions around this objective, and we are creating an environment where the best are being drawn to education,” he says. As Chair of the International Board of License of COJE—the Lubavitch Central Organization for Jewish Education (Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch)–, Rabbi Kaplan is urging all teachers in the network of Chabad schools and yeshivas to enter a certification process and work toward full licensure.
Under Kaplan’s directorship, COJE recently became the first and only Jewish accreditation agency by The National Council for Private School Accreditation. As such, he explains, “it is our goal to have all Chabad-Lubavitch educational institutions become accredited.” A rigorous process by which any yeshiva or day school seeking accreditation through COJE will need to meet NCPSA standards, it is a critical step towards realizing the kinds of changes Kaplan is looking for.
This is the third annual educators’ conference, and in the course of two days, participants could choose from scores of workshops and sessions on topics of interest. Mrs. Rivkah Reitzes, a teacher at Cheder Lubavitch in Chicago, IL. says the workshop by Dr. Shimon Russel was especially illuminating. Russel, a psychotherapist with years of experience in education for special needs students, taught teachers to become aware of the telltale signs identifying children at risk early in their schooling. “With this kind of insight, teachers can anticipate developmental, social or learning problems early on, and involve the right kind of professionals to prevent years of heartache later on,” explained Reitzes.
Popular among many of the educators attending the conference was Dr. James Cordle’s presentation on “Creating Cooperative and Confident Students—How It Is Done.” A clinical child psychologist, Cordle focused on methods of making children feel self-motivated to be mindful of school rules and to feel good about themselves, producing rapid change in students’ behavior. “It was an outstanding workshop,” says Mrs. Sara Vilenkin, a curriculum advisor and teaching coach at Beth Rivkah, the flagship Lubavitch girls school. “He presented techniques for dealing with behavioral difficulties and student interruptions that are respectful of the student and least disruptive to the class,” she says.
The sessions in fact were all focused on raising teacher sensitivity to the individual student within the constraints of a group setting. “It is not an impossible goal to achieve,” explains Rabbi Kaplan. “But it requires a fundamental rethinking about education and its administration, and we are beginning to see changes in our schools already.”
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, Chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, the educational division of Lubavitch which sponsors these conferences, reflected on the spiritual role of the educator. Quoting the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, he said that through teaching, one creates a spiritual bond with the student that endures even long after the student has moved on, and thus has lifelong ramifications for both student and teachers.
“Chabad,” said Krinsky, “always regarded teaching as a noble and sacred calling. “Ironically, though, it is not given its due. With all the improvements Chabad is implementing, I expect others will recognize teaching as the most exalted of professions, and that Jewish educators will begin to feel that they are involved in a truly revered and sacred occupation.”