Why Caring, Educated, Respected and Well-Paid Teachers
Get Far Better Results Then Tough Teachers

By Rabbi Benyomin Ginsburg

I had a teacher who approached me one day after class and sternly asked me why I wasn't taking any notes during the lesson. I showed him my notes, which were detailed, thorough, and clearly written, and explained how I had such excellent notes when I never wrote during class. I shared with him my disability that I wasn't able to listen and write at the same time. I therefore developed my own solution. I listened carefully during class and I wrote my notes as a review after class.

My teacher, instead of sticking to his idea of what was normal for a student to do and what he expected of his students, showed compassion and understanding. He suggested another solution. "Why don't I photocopy my notes and share them with you. That way you won't have to do that extra work of writing your notes over again, and you can still focus during the lesson."

 Are you surprised that he was by far my favorite teacher and the one from whom I learned most? He demanded much from us and was firm, with a no-nonsense attitude that didn't allow for laziness. Not contradicting his usual firm manner, he genuinely cared about his students and showed us his caring and love. It was for this reason that he was loved by his students.

 Our system of education and the resulting low scores places us in dire straits at home, where students aren't as prepared to enter the professional workforce, and more embarrassingly, on the international playing field. Almost everything about the way our schools run, from the amount of homework to the disciplinary policies, must be overhauled to produce the necessary results, yet without bringing back the many challenges and negative experiences of the previous decades.
 As an educator with more than thirty years in the classroom as a teacher, principal, and in hundreds of schools in the role of consultant, I must express my strong dismay at the recent article, penned by Joanner Lipman, titled, "Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results."
Ms. Lipman begins her article by telling the story of experiences with her childhood orchestra conductor, a fierce Ukrainian immigrant named Jerry Kupchynsky. She shares her memories of his gruff, irritated manner and expresses her belief that it was his unfailingly high expectations and demands that made him such an extraordinary teacher.
Lipman describes her surprise at the tremendous outpouring of gratitude toward the "teacher who has basically tortured us through adolescence," calling his students "idiots" when they made a mistake and never giving a compliment higher than "well-done."
You are right, Ms. Lipman, "Today, he'd be fired." There are many aspects of Mr. K's educational methods that I don't take issue with, like his high expectations or the fact that he didn't coddle his students. However, a teacher who can humiliate a student in any way, particularly through name-calling, should never enter a classroom again. How dare he? How dare we allow him to?
Instead of celebrating his accomplishments, I mourn for the many other students who were destroyed by his horrible and inexcusable humiliation. Have you reviewed all the rosters of his classes? Have you researched how many students he crushed? Do you know the percentage of his students who excelled and those who desperately and sadly failed?

The school system is failing, yet the answer does not lie in reverting back to the totalitarian classrooms of the past where students were secondary and the teacher had full clearance to do whatever he wanted.

I am a product of the old school method of education where I was an outstanding student. I excelled academically and was proud of myself and my accomplishments. Yet, for no justified reason, I had every ounce of energy physically and emotionally beaten out of me.
I have no doubt that Lipman would agree that physical abuse from a teacher to a student is never excusable and would have tremendous negative effects on the students. Even if a teacher as lauded as Mr. K had physically assaulted his students to convince them to work harder, he (hopefully) would have been fired immediately and banned from teaching children ever again. No one would question that decision, as hitting is never acceptable and always has extreme consequences.
The key factor that Lipman seems to have missed is that there is little difference between the irreparable damage inflicted by physical and verbal abuse. It is so simple to be horrified when a teacher slaps a child or hits him with a stick, but the teacher called you a fumbling idiot who never tries? Get over it and work harder to earn his respect!
  In fact, verbal abuse may have far worse and far-reaching negative effects than a physical slap or beating. The emotional trauma that is inflicted on a child when he is embarrassed by his teacher in front of the class last longer that it will take for a bruise to heal.

When I meet my old classmates and hundreds of those of the old school, I hear their pain, their anguish and the hatred of their teachers and principals. It is not because they were physically beaten, but because their memories of school are those of humiliation and misery.
How foolish can one be to claim that the answer to today's problems is the teachers' lack of toughness?! I can proudly claim that in my thirty plus years as an educator, I NEVER insulted a student and I treated them with love, care, and compassion, treated them as adults, gave them rigorous work and worked them to the bone. I gave them the message that they can succeed. And yes, they did succeed!
I suspect that at my funeral, hundreds of my students will attend, just to say a final thank you for treating them like someone who can make a difference in the world. In all my travels, I bump into student after student, hearing reports of the exemplary lives they lead and their positive reflections of what it meant to them to be treated as intelligent adults rather than daft children.

We're in the midst of a witnessing a disaster of the educational system. Every day there are stories of school violence, where students come to school armed with weapons, ready to hurt their peers and/or teachers. Our students are more proud of the number of friends they have on their Facebook account than the outstanding grades they are capable of achieving. Our teachers are ill-prepared to enter the classroom, are disrespected, and are being treated poorly by the parents who were the children of the old school system of education. We pay more attention to test results than we do to the results of raising fine citizens. Principals claim success when their students leave school every day as physically safe as when they arrived, or when their teachers don't quit after just one year.
  We need to learn from the past, but also from the present. We need to make some drastic changes. We need to create a culture in which teaching is the most sought-after profession. We need a system in which students love to learn and learn to love!
  Lipman wonders did Mr. K do right that created students and musicians of the highest caliber, who learned about dedication, strength, and responsibility. The true question is, what did Mr. K do wrong?
  What can we learn from a teacher whose methods produced tremendous results, yet who acted as a horrible role-model? His students learned that it is acceptable to call another person (any person) an idiot! They grew to become exemplary musicians and learned their own limits, but at what price? How many are more crass individuals today because of their experience?
Instead of going back to the tough, unyielding education of the past, we need to take a more compassionate approach to education to undo the damage caused by those teachers. I am specifically using the word "compassionate" rather than "soft" because I agree with Lipman that mollycoddling students and making their lives as simple as stress-free as possible is severely detrimental to their overall growth in academics and maturity. Students need to sometimes experience failure, to know that they can try hard, very hard, and succeed if they truly put in all of their effort. What they don't need is the callous, "I don't care about you" approach that characterized Mr. K's teaching.

  Compassion, caring, and genuine concern for students is the key to creating students who are motivated to work hard to achieve the goals that their teachers set before them.
We must learn from the few current-day classrooms that are producing far better results than Mr. K's auditorium. As shocking as it may seem amidst the overwhelming negativity, there are many teachers who are doing remarkable jobs in their classrooms, with outstanding results.
I would venture to say that these successful educators are not rough and threatening toward their students. My definition of a successful teacher is one who helps students reach their full potential, who are treated with love, with care and as humans. A successful teacher treats students with respect and in return, enjoys the respectful treatment of those students.
Lipman is undeniably right that strict discipline and unyielding demand are successful in controlling our students and forcing obedience, but they do nothing in changing the negative behavior.
  You state that you are not calling for abuse, yet being taught by teachers you describe as negative is abusive. For every study you will produce that supports your position, I will bring you those that show just the opposite.
  It is not the kinder, gentler philosophy that has destroyed our education. Effective wisdom tells us that teachers are supposed to create an environment in which students love to learn, rather than pounding their education into their heads. Yes, I do support projects and collaborative learning as superior methods of education and frown upon lecturing and memorization.
  Would you rather a student who is not respectful, who doesn't feel good about himself, who hates learning, yet had memorized the names of all of our presidents and our states and knows the words of our Constitution? Or would you rather a student who is emotionally healthy, who is living a productive life and is raising a happy family, yet needs a calculator for some calculations, who needs to use spellchecker as he prepares a document and who can't repeat verses of a Shakespeare play?

The eight principles that Lipman maintains will save our students, are what may be great contributors to our current failed state of education.

1. A little pain is good for you.
Studies show that successful teachers are teachers who are fair, firm and set high expectations. Is there any hint of pain in these descriptions? Pain?!? How dare we make our students suffer from any kind of pain?
My observations and practice show me that it is not review or practice that are the activities that produce long-term positive results. The greatest cause of successful results is the manner in which the lesson was taught. A positive classroom in which the teacher is kind, respectful and loving has far more chance of producing students with great academic and emotional success.

2. Drill, baby, drill.
Wrong, wrong, wrong! First of all, memorization is an insult to the intelligence of a student. I remember much more of what I learned by exciting teachers who made learning applicable and exciting than by teachers who made us review over and over again.
Yes, we need to memorize some facts that we will need throughout life. Memorizing the multiplication tables is an essential tool for anything in life. Yet, how does the fact the fact I won every single spelling bee in my years at school help me today? Some thirty-odd years later, I can't write a sentence without spellcheck. I memorized the difficult words to win the bee, and then promptly forgot them as soon as the bee was over.
When becoming a musician, constant practice is an irrefutable reality if the musician wants to be anything more than mediocre, yet the classroom is not the auditorium! Drilling the same information over and over again, with blank memorization the only way to succeed provides the student with little true knowledge and life lessons.
In addition, how many students who simply don't have what it takes to memorize were crushed to a degree of no return?
As the great educator Norman Kunc teaches, musical chairs was one of the many games of the past in which the single winner created so many losers. Why not create opportunities for all to be winners?

3. Failure is an option.
Failure is what the old school produced; the teaching styles of the past generation created adults who are unwilling to try, for they were ridiculed when they tried and failed.
Failure is only an option when it comes along with the opportunity to try again and succeed in a caring environment where the student knows that her failure does not mean that she is a failure. In that setting,failure is a tremendous learning opportunity that can create adults who don't fall apart when something goes wrong.
The concept that Lipman suggests, that students' motivation and self-esteem will not decrease after failure, is only possible when the failure occurs in a setting in which the students know that failure is an essential part of learning. If a student is told that she is a failure, a good-for-nothing, a lazy and unmotivated child, and that she failed because she isn't good enough, that kind of failure is destructive to the extreme.
Failure is only a healthy option when the child has a way to succeed.

4. Strict is better than nice.
In the course of my work, I asked thousands of children (including those of many generations ago) to share what was it that made them succeed in school. I never heard any student attribute their success to having a teacher who was strict. Expectations, yes, but rules, no! Firm, yes, but strict, no!
I frown upon those teachers who begin their first day with stating the class rules. If students are there to learn, why not teach them? Why not show them that learning can be a labor of love? Stating the rules is an authoritative, harsh way of beginning a year of learning.
Many educators of past generation will tell new teachers not to smile until Thanksgiving. I smiled on the first day of the school year and that smile remained all year long. Not only did I smile, all my students did. Yes, all! Happy students who are excited to come learn because they know that their teacher cares about them are far more likely to learn and be happy about it.
Lipman quotes a student who says that she was coddled when she cried in her first, second, and third grade classrooms, but finally got to "Mrs. T's" class, where she was told to "suck it up and get to work." The student realized she needed to work harder and placed her emotions on the backburner, causing her to succeed in school.
Why is devaluing a child's emotions considered helpful? Mrs. T was needlessly cruel, not just strict! A firm but kind teacher could have achieved the same results by saying, "I see that you're upset about something, but now is not the time to focus on what happened at recess. Now we are in class and it is time to learn, so let's discuss what happened after class. Please turn to page sixteen and begin the exercise."
Strict seems like it means uncaring and callous, when all student needs is firm kindness.

5. Creativity can be learned.
Absolutely! Today's system of education, with learning through art, music, written word, acting, etc., is exponentially more creative-inducing that the dry, text dominated education of the past.

6. Grit trumps talent.
What exactly is grit? Students who are given unrealistic goals and are told that success depends on meeting those goals are crushed as they begin failing before the starting line. That is not a lack of grit, it is a lack of foresight on the teacher's part when assigning an impossible goal.
If grit is a student's ability to try something that she has never tried before, and to persevere despite inexperience, then grit undoubtedly trumps a student's natural ability to achieve that same goal.

7. Praise makes you weak...
"Not bad" is a statement of a highly negative person. They come from the same teachers who give poor grades on the first grading period so that the students have a chance to get better. False and overstated praise fails. Honest and sincere praise produce positive lifelong results.
It's the type of praise that can make a child weak, not praise in itself. As Lipman states very clearly, telling a student that he is "smart," "amazing," or any other praise that is a definitive statement about who the child is will not be effective. Praising a child's habits, like telling him that he is a hard worker, that he is considerate to others, always tries new activities and doesn't easily give up, are about how the child interacts with others. That kind of praise is monumental in creating a child who can be successful in any endeavor.

8....while stress makes you strong.
There is a huge difference between challenges, hard work, and stress. Stress and anxiety are unhealthy for a child's emotional and physical development. Studies show that children who undergo true stress, like a divorce, loss of a family member, poverty, etc., suffer from physical ailments as well.
Stressful situations in school, like having a teacher who barks at you constantly and never thinks you can accomplish anything useful, is not a healthy stress. Having a teacher who you know will give you a challenge that will make you work hard and learn something new makes you strong.

 Lipman wisely concludes that Mr. K's methods aren't for everyone. Successful education is when and where EVERY students succeeds! That is the goal we must work for. It was not successful in the old school and it is not successful in our current system. Educators must find a middle ground and build on that, by studying what works and affecting those changes that will have the greatest positive effect on today's students.