This week, being Jewish has helped me tremendously as a teacher. As I've written before, this year has been incredibly difficult for me. I have been challenged by the students like I've never been challenged before: the entitlement, the disrespect, the lack of effort.
Now that the year is wrapping up, I am doing my usual reflection on the year and what I could have done better. In Judaism, one of the areas of study this particular week is a concept of "tochecha", which gets translated as "rebuke". The Torah outlines 4 consecutive rules in this week's section of study:
- You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart
- You shall rebuke your kinsfolk, but incur no guilt
- You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge because of your kinsfolk
- You shall love your neighbor as yourself
The first rule does not ban "hate" on its own. It bans hate "in my heart", meaning that I cannot carry it with me. I am allowed to feel it, but I cannot carry it. I am allowed to feel negatively about a student or a student's behavior, but I am not allowed to let it enter "into" my heart.
This leads to the second rule, where I have to "rebuke" a negative behavior without creating "sin" or "ill". This rule forces me to confront a student, but I cannot do it in such a way where I create sin for myself. I cannot insult, I cannot embarrass, I cannot make false claims, etc. There is so much commentary out there about this part. How can someone possibly "rebuke" someone else within these parameters? There are also many commentaries about accepting "rebuke" within these parameters as well...but that's for another time.
This third rule is what may seem out of place, but it is this very rule that makes me reflect on my teaching this year. This third rule is the consequence of the first rule. If you allow hate to stay in your heart, it will impact your behavior. Hate will always show itself: the best thing to do is follow the second rule and confront or "rebuke" it. If not, this third rule comes into play. If you don't control your negative feeling, it will come across as vengeance. If you simply smile and repress your hate, it will come across as resentment or a grudge. As I reflect on this year, I allowed my negative feelings to embody as resentment. I didn't confront well, I didn't "rebuke" properly, and it came across as a grudge. I was not neighborly. I violated this rule.
The fourth rule is quite famous, but I never knew it in the context of following the previous three. Now that I have studied the three previous rules, I can read "love your neighbor as yourself" as a process of "self improvement" more than "self love". The 3 previous rules are designed to repair something that is broken, especially if the 2nd rule is to be followed correctly. You know the repair process has worked if you follow the 3rd rule and see no vengeance or resentment. The process of repair with your neighbor is supposed to be the same process you use on yourself. It is what I'm doing right now: reflection, which moves through rebuke without sin, that should result in improvement.
The Rebellious Soul and Negotiation
Now enters the 2nd piece of learning I encountered this week: the rebellious soul. There is a lot to the concept of this soul, sometimes called a "soul of chaos" and I can relate to this soul because I feel I encountered quite a few of them this year. I may be wrong in that determination, but let's say I'm right. Let's say that my profession and the choices I make in my profession place me in direct contact with many "souls of chaos". How do I react? How can I teach a rebellious soul? How can I have a productive relationship with students set on destruction?
The answer to that question is found through the 3rd piece of learning I encountered this week: negotiation. The course for negotiation I encountered was within the context of Jewish learning and "tochecha". You can find the source sheet for that course here. Working with a rebellious soul inside a classroom can be related to a negotiation situation where rules for engagement must be employed and followed in order to communicate effectively. If I am to follow the 4 consecutive rules, I must have rules of engagement when working with rebellious souls. The teacher of the course I encountered, Michael Tsur, gave some insight in the context of hostage situations for rules of engagement.
Solutions to Ponder
When dealing with a rebellious soul, the first step is to make your request: "Would you please ______"? This is similar to the first step of "rebuke" in tochecha. Using the confrontation sentence frame: "I feel ____ when you ____. Is there a reason you are doing _______?" These first steps can begin a communication. In the case of tochecha, the ultimate goal of this question is make sure you are not making assumptions and have a grasp on the entire picture, not just your own perspective.
With this request or question, you are now able to begin a communication. In the context of negotiation, it is important to not insult the rebellious soul or make the soul defensive. The goal of negotiation, as Michael Tsur puts it, is to protect your assets. In education, I would argue that the assets worth protecting are "student learning". I want students to learn. I want them to seek learning. In the communication with the rebellious soul, I want to protect student learning. So, I do not want to insult the student or make the student defensive. I want to engage with the student to ensure learning. This ties back to tochecha in that the result from the 4 consecutive rules should be a change in behavior and attitude. Somewhere. It may be your neighbor's behavior and attitude that could change, but it also may be your own behavior and attitude that could change!!! In order to achieve this end, open channels of communication must remain.
What if the rebellious soul says "no" to your request? In order to prevent defensiveness, it is important to not ask "why not?" or press the motive for the behavior if it's not offered at the onset. Do not seek their justification for the behavior. This will create defensiveness.
In order to prevent insult, it is important to stay focused on the behavior and not offer something separate in exchange for compliance. That is what creates the insult. So, if we cannot ask why and cannot offer something in exchange, what do we do with the rebellious soul who says "no" to our request?
We begin to ask: "what is it that could be said or done to allow you to ____ ?" When they ponder the response to this question, we can now get into a conversation. We can begin to address the attitudes and behaviors, even our own, that must change according the 4 consecutive rules without creating "sin" or "guilt". We can get an accurate picture of the entire situation and not just our own perspective. We can build a relationship. We can come to a peace or an understanding. We can address the situation and prevent ourselves from "vengeance" and "resentment". We can repair the broken situation.
But what if the rebellious soul still says "no"? What if we have done everything and there is still rebellion? We have to have peace with the process. We can remember:
- We cannot control other people. We can only do our best with the process and hope that we can repair the situation. The whole leading a horse to water thing...
- We must take care of ourselves. Working with rebellious souls usually takes up a lot of mental and emotional space for us. Through the process of the struggle, our only method of survival is to take good care of ourselves. We have to focus on mental health, physical health, spiritual health. We have to employ breathing techniques or meditation or medication or walking or running (I'm a runner). Rebellious souls force us to look inward during our journey together.
- We must seek to improve. If nothing else, we should reflect on our efforts with rebellious souls and find ways to be better on our end moving forward. Were there things we could have done better to prevent the negative situations? Were there obstacles within our control that could have mitigated on behalf of the rebellious souls?
As much as I would like to say "it wasn't me" about my struggles this year, there is much I can take away. There are methods of communication I can improve, there are mechanisms in my class I can put into place, and there are processes that I can change. Many of my students this year were giant pains in my rear end, but I hope my experience with them will make me a better teacher and a better husband and a better father.