Hi Rabbi Ross. My wife and I are a bit confused because our son is being tracked in middle school. The Yeshiva puts boys in 6th grade into one of two classes, one of them stronger and one of them weaker. Until 6th grade, the classes are pretty much even. Our son was put in the weaker class even though we think he’s a strong learner, and the Yeshiva said there were specific reasons. We’re monitoring this situation, and it seems that they’re not learning as much and rather spend more time doing Chesed and other Mitzvos. Are we right for being aggravated? Do you have any advice? M.G. Brooklyn
Tracking children is a huge discussion, and it’s not only limited to Jewish children. Should stronger children be pushed harder? There are so many variables that it’s difficult to answer a question like this. Nevertheless, you asked for my opinion, so I’ll share it with you. Please keep in mind that there are MANY Yeshivos and Mechanchim that strongly disagree with me.
Before sharing my thoughts, I want to clarify one important point. This response will tackle the issue of tracking students based on their learning. I’m not discussing behavioral concerns in this article. Although the behavior of a student is typically factored into tracking decision, nevertheless we’re going to focus strictly on the level of learning.
For arguments sake, let’s pretend that there is a Yeshiva where the students are being tracked after 5th grade, and there are 3 classes per grade. Assuming each class has 24 students, you’ll have 3 types of children. There will be children at the top, children in the middle and children that aren’t as strong in learning. Let’s see how each group is functioning in 5th grade before they’re tracked.
The strongest students might be a bit bored. They know the learning very well and understand it after hearing it one time. Many Rebbeim and teachers are on top of this and give these kids advanced extra credit to keep them occupied. The middle children are working hard and accomplishing. They look up to the top kids, and really push themselves to succeed. Even the kids that can’t keep up with the class gain in many ways. They’re surrounded by well-behaved and mature kids in a structured environment.
Here’s a case in point. A few years ago, one of the weakest students I’ve ever taught was on cloud nine during our Siyum on Mishnayos Brachos. “We finished it!” he was telling everyone. Did he understand the learning? Probably not. But he was a part of something amazing. All the students in the class are supposed to be involved at some level. Maybe they aren’t learning as much since it’s geared towards a stronger student, but, at least they’re in a mainstream class. The boys are cohesive and work together. They might not be gaining skills, but they feel like a part of something special.
Now, that last sentence was scary. How is it ok if they’re not gaining skills? In order to answer that, we need to try and understand the goal of Yeshiva. It seems to me that there are three primary goals. I am not listing them in any particular order.
It’s a difficult question to answer. The reason we send our kids to a Yeshiva, is to learn Torah. Even if the kids are not gaining skills, there’s a Mitzvah to learn Torah. I personally believe that even if the child doesn’t look like he’s gaining when learning Torah, it’s seeping in. Now, if the student in question is so weak that he’s not learning anything, obviously he either needs to be pulled out for one on one, or possibly switch to a Yeshiva more geared to his level.
Gaining skills? That’s so important. Without skills, it’s so difficult for kids to grow. The famous line is “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” If we give our precious children skills, they will have the ability to learn on their own as they grow older. There’s no denying skills are crucial. The question that needs answering is, if a student isn’t gaining skills, should he be removed from the class? If he’s just sitting and listening, and not getting great grades, is that enough? Are we helping or hurting a child like this?
That brings us to the last goal, which is helping kids develop confidence and feel accomplished. Personally, I think this is the most important of the three. I have seen the excitement with kids that aren’t amongst the stronger ones. I have watched them learn things that I never thought they would. Most importantly, I have observed these “weaker” students look up to, and yes, even respect the stronger students. They become their role models.
Then they get tracked. Now, this happens in many Yeshivos. There is a top class, and a medium class, and a weaker class. The smarter Yeshivos have an advanced class, and the other classes are equal, which ensures that there are no “weak” classes. Here’s where the problems begin in my opinion.
I’ve always felt that every class has similar personalities. There are the top students that strive to succeed. There are the super sensitive ones, the immature ones, and the weak ones and a few others. Sometimes you’ll have a fun mix of a strong and sensitive student, and other times you’ll have a weak and immature student. In the past 23 years, I’ve always had a random mixture. Some classes are stronger, and some are more mature. No matter what, each class in unique and diverse, yet somewhat predictable.
Once these students are tracked, you have a strong class with 24 “Top” kids. I don’t think this works. Indubitably, some of them are going to sink. These students that are sinking would’ve been top kids in a typical class, but when they’re surrounded with other top students, they begin to sink. To be fair, I haven’t done any official studies on this, but I have met with many students that were put in this situation from many different schools. Their parents always bring them to me and say “I don’t know why he’s having issues! He’s always been a top kid!”
The lower tracks have more serious problems. Even if they have a dynamite Rebbe or teacher, it’s very hard to convince a class that they’re a wonderful group, when they’re already, at the very least, in second place. Now, the Rebbe has a class of kids that aren’t as strong in learning. What’s the easy solution? Make the year fun!
*Warning* I’m generalizing.
Here’s where it gets interesting. The Rebbe, (who’s an amazing Rebbe), has to convince these kids that they’re awesome. The funny thing is, they ARE awesome. The issue is, in order to make the kids happier, they spend time in class doing exciting things. Playing games. Watching Jewish videos. Hearing stories. How much time is spent learning? Wasn’t the reason we tracked them so that the weaker students have a chance to shine? If the point is to give them a stronger foundation, we might be failing miserably.
Therefore, if some of the advanced kids aren’t doing as well as they should, and the medium and weaker students aren’t gaining skills, why are we doing this?
Here are a few thoughts.
A) Many people would respond that the strong students should learn on a higher level. That’s true. However, there’s no reason that they can’t have an accelerated session once a day. It doesn’t have to be a class. Any boys that have for example an average higher than 95%, can join.
B) To those that think that I’m generalizing, well I am. However, I speak to many children and parents, and I think I’ve encapsulated what they tell me. Are there exceptions? I’m sure there are. I still think it’s not worth it.
C) Yes, your son is in a lower track and his Rebbe is amazing. I’m not Chas V’Shalom insulting any Rebbeim. It’s the opposite. I think this Rebbe will do accomplish more with a diverse class. Let all the kids feel like they are the best. I used to teach a 7th grade lower track for many years. Rabbi Herzberg zt’l told me on day one, “If you learn with them, they will respond”. I learned and they responded.
D) One last thought. I understand that this isn’t a topic that can be debated on an online blog (or in a newspaper for that matter). It’s been discussed by many people, and I’m sure that it will be debated for many more years.
To answer your original question, yes, you should be aggravated. I agree that you’re sending him to succeed in his learning. You should insist that your son be put in the advanced Shiur and arrange for someone to help him catch up to the class.
Have a good Shabbos,
Hi Rabbi Ross. My question is regarding screaming. More often than not, I find myself raising my voice when dealing with the kids, and I’ve noticed that my husband does the same. MY parents screamed at me all the time, and as many issues I think I’ve had, the fact remains that I’m just an average Jewish mother. My husband feels we should try cutting back on the yelling, but yelling works. Otherwise they don’t listen. What do you think?
Yelling is certainly popular. It also seems to work well, otherwise, as you pointed out so eloquently, parents wouldn’t keep doing it. Here are the questions we need to ask.
The same holds true when people are in a noisy situation. The loudest voice is the one that’s heard. In a classroom setting, a good Rebbe or teacher will talk quietly and as a result the class will quiet down to hear what’s being spoken. When dealing with children in an uncontrolled environment, even in your own home, the loudest voice prevails.
So, yes. Parents yell. Nonetheless, I would like to make a distinction between a few different types of yelling.
The second type of yelling isn’t so helpful. It might help you release some stress, but it does more harm than good. Your kids know you’re angry, and you’re basically telling them “When a person gets angry, it’s ok to yell at others.” Sure, they’ll probably listen to you. You might even get the respect you are looking for. It’s just that there is a high price to pay.
To be fair, kids are resilient. If you get really upset and yell at them occasionally, they’ll get over it. You can even apologize for your behavior. “When I yelled at you before I was very upset about a few things. I shouldn’t have screamed at you. I’m really sorry.” It can be a great learning experience.
The last type of yelling is inexcusable. Losing control is never OK, and the negative character traits your children will pick up can last for a very long time. How would you feel if your boss went crazy on you because he was upset about something else? Even if the yelling is justified, it’s completely wrong. Think for a second how it would feel if you were being screamed at by an adult, and possibly with others watching. It’s humiliating and so hurtful.
They are children. Whatever they did, losing control is not an option. What will the result be if this happens? For starters, you might start noticing seriously negative behaviors in your children. They might only respond when you yell at them. They might begin to yell back at you. They might even start disregarding what you say. It only goes downhill from there.
The result can very well be having children that are completely estranged. They can’t or won’t have a relationship with their parents that constantly yelled and screamed at them. Their self-esteem will be in the dumps, and they have a much higher chance of slipping a lot further.
What can you do? First of all, when you’re upset at your kids, it’s ok to act stern. Lowering your voice works most of the time, but if you feel the situation calls for a raised voice, by all means, use an outside voice. Screaming isn’t ok.
If you’re that upset that you feel you might lose control, take a timeout. There’s no shame in taking a timeout, and you can actually turn it into a wonderful teaching moment. “I’m so upset right now that I am not going to speak because I don’t like to talk when I’m upset!” This will teach your children that even when they’re really upset, they still must act like Bnai Torah.
There is one last thing that I would like to mention. Many parents have written in, telling me that they frequently lose control. If you feel as a parent you are losing control more than once a month, you might benefit from therapy. There are some amazing techniques that you can learn to help calm yourself, and it’s a very worthy investment.
Have a calm and wonderful Shabbos,
Rabbi Ross. My 4th grade son has been complaining that his class goes “crazy” every morning before Yeshiva starts. They throw things around, pick on kids, and are extremely silly. Apparently, the Rebbi arrives at the exact time when yeshiva begins. He then proceeds to punish the entire class because of their behaviors. My son refuses to speak to anyone about it and insists that I stay out of it. I guess my questions are, should I listen to him and not tell the school? Should I send an anonymous email to make the school aware? Is it fair for a Rebbi to punish a class because of a few boys? Chaim Sokolov
I really try to keep this blog focused on parenting, but you are bringing up a few topics that are worth discussing. I’ll try to answer your questions as best as possible, but I’m sure that the Rebbeim that read this blog aren’t going to be very happy with me.
Question one – Should a Rebbe arrive early? As with every other job, there are pros and cons to being a Rebbe in a Yeshiva. The pay isn’t that great, and you definitely need to bring the work home with you. On the flip side, most Rebbeim finish in the early afternoon which allows for a second job, and, most importantly, teaching Torah is the most rewarding feeling.
When a typical job begins, an employee needs to be there on time. A Rebbe however, should be in his classroom a minimum of 15 minutes before Yeshiva begins. I say minimum, since I know of many Rebbeim that arrive a half hour early. It gives you time to get settled, organize your class if needed, and keep the early arrivals calm. When the kids trickle in early, you have the opportunity to shmooze with them and see how they’re doing.
There are Rebbeim that travel from Brooklyn to the 5 Towns, and they arrive on time. There are even a few Rebbeim that travel from Lakewood every day, and somehow, they manage to be early. It’s baffling to me that certain Rebbeim show up at the last second. Not only is it hard for the administration, it’s really not good for the class. I’ve heard all types of reasons. “I have to bring kids to the babysitter” or” I only get the car 10 minutes before Yeshiva begins”. It’s just wrong. The children need to have a Rebbe or Morah in the class when they walk in.
I also had that issue when I had younger kids and my wife worked. Somehow, we figured out a solution. You might think it’s ok, but I can assure you that the Yeshivos keep very good track regarding which Rebbeim arrive early and which ones arrive at the last second. The kids need a Rebbe (or Morah) to be there as they arrive. Some Yeshivos do have the kids meet in a common area which is a great idea. Nonetheless, it’s still so important for a Rebbe or Morah to arrive at least 15 minutes early.
Question two – Should you get involved in a school issue if your son doesn’t want you to, or perhaps contact them anonymously? That’s a difficult question. Typically, if your child asks you not to say anything, you shouldn’t say anything. Trust is a two-way street, and if you want your child to trust you, you need to keep your promises. The fact is, if your son is speaking to you about his day it’s a good thing. Violating his trust might cause him to stop sharing information with you.
There are understandably times that you need to make some crucial decisions. If your child is being bullied or there are other serious issues, you would need to call the school immediately. In this case, I wouldn’t call the Rebbe and ask him to verify, rather I would contact the principal directly and let him know what’s going on. You can preface your call with “This is what my son told me; I’m leaving this in your capable hands”.
The obvious question is, do you ask your son’s permission before calling, or at the very least tell him? It really depends on the child. If you think he’ll comprehend that you need to take additional steps to protect him (or other children), I would go for it. If you don’t think he’ll understand, just make sure that the school handles it correctly and discreetly. The proper way to deal with bullying incidents is beyond the scope of this article, but most Yeshivos do have training in place to guide the Rebbeim.
You asked about contacting the Yeshiva anonymously. I was taught years ago, that anonymous correspondence isn’t worth the paper it’s sent on. (This was obviously when people mailed things.) I receive a few anonymous emails every month, and once I realize it’s anonymous, I delete it immediately. I don’t even read it. Sending an anonymous e-mail to your school will accomplish nothing. Actually, they might find out it was you (it’s very hard to remain anonymous) which can backfire.
The last point you mentioned, was punishing the class for one or two children. I am not very fond of punishing in general, I’m more of a fan of consequences. In any case, it doesn’t seem very fair to punish an entire class because of the actions of a few boys. If a large amount of kids are misbehaving, that’s a separate story. One or two boys should not be causing an entire class to suffer.
One Rebbe told me that when he punishes the class because of one boy, they all “glare” at the offender. His (warped) logic was, since he’ll make the class upset, everything will magically work itself out. There are many issues with this. First of all, the ones making trouble are already suffering from low self-esteem. Making the class upset at them won’t help them at all. Second of all, if a Rebbe needs the rest of the class to help him with class management, perhaps it’s time he found alternative employment.
To answer your question, you should sit your son down and have a serious talk with him. Find out if he’s exaggerating, or if things are indeed out of control. (Resist the urge to ask, “Does anyone else think the classroom is crazy in the morning?” on the class chat). If he’s not exaggerating, tell him that you need to call the Yeshiva and find out what’s going on, but you won’t mention his name, and you’ll make sure it doesn’t get back to him.
Hatzlacha and have a good Shabbos.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a Rebbe and has been working with parents and kids for many years. You can read more about him in the "about" section.