Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?

Admissions seasons tend to bring up big-picture questions and spark big-picture conversations.  Which makes sense as parents – both new and returning – are making critical decisions about where, why and how they want their children to be educated.  Today, I want to take an opportunity to reflect on a question that bubbles up from time to time that I struggle to provide a clear answer to.  It gets asked in lots of different ways, but essentially boils down to the same idea: Do I or does the “school” have a responsibility to address behaviors that take place outside the bounded times and spaces of school?

Typically the question is specific to an incident of negative behavior, although it is just as fair to ask about positive behavior as well, and I intend to address both.

Jewish day schools are in the character-building business.  It is a significant motivation for parents to enroll their children in our schools.  We care at least as much about who our students are as we care about what they can accomplish.  We utilize Jewish value language across the curriculum to reinforce the idea that being a mensch is not something one does only in certain classes, but something one is all day long.  Our teachers work hard all day to ensure that our school lives up to the ideal of being a community of kindness.  And even during school we struggle to achieve our goal.  That’s precisely why we launched our new behavior management program anchored in the “7 Habits” in the first place.  [Click here for a recap.]  We recognized that in order to become that community it required all of us working together to build the safe, loving environment our children deserve. But even these new approaches emphasizes what happens under our watchful eye.

What about the text sent out at 9:00 PM?

What about the play-date on Sunday?  Or the ones some children are not invited to?

What about the hallways during Bar Mitzvah services?

Let me be clear that I am purposefully leaving parents out of this behavioral equation.  Not because I either blame parents for their children’s behavior nor because I abdicate parents of their responsibility to effectively parent.  I am simply asking a different question.  If I witness or discover noteworthy behavior of my students when we are not technically in school, what exactly are my responsibilities to respond or react?  Do I have a stake in who my students are when they are not in school?

The simple answer is “yes”.  I care deeply about who our students are when they are not in school because how they behave when no one is watching matters a whole lot more than how they behave under close supervision.  That’s the true measure of character. That’s derekh eretz.

OK, that part is simple.  I am proud when students behave well outside of school and disappointed when they don’t.  But do I share those feelings with them?  Do I share those feelings with their parents?  Is it my place to hold them accountable for those behaviors?  Those are the vexing questions I struggle to answer effectively – especially when the behaviors are grey.

The black-and-white ones are easy; they always are when the level of behavior is so significant it cannot be ignored.  We already engage parents when we discover social events where students are excluded. We already employ effective discipline when students bully outside school walls and times.  And on the positive end of the spectrum, we already celebrate students who are honored elsewhere.  We already praise students for their outside academic, artistic and athletic achievements.  We already highlight students who perform significant acts of lovingkindness outside of school.

The grey ones are more complicated; they always are when the level of behavior is insignificant enough that it can be, and often is, ignored. We don’t always engage parents to ensure all our students have access to frequent play-dates and smaller social opportunities.  We don’t always praise students for their random acts of lovingkindness outside of school. We often ignore disruptive behavior at Bar Mitzvahs and Jewish holidays because we are ostensibly “off-duty” and we rarely call those students to account for those behaviors when next back in school.

I am not comfortable simply standing on the sidelines.

With regard to being a “community of kindness” we say that we will know if the work we have done is taking hold if students on their own are willing to address their own behavior or that of their friends.  That children will be willing to say to themselves and to each other that “we do not behave like that here”.  To me this is no different.  We need to do a better job instilling pride of school and pride of self in our students so that they feel the responsibility of representation outside our direct reach.  An OJCS student simply does not behave like that.  An OJCS student behaves with derekh eretz whether they are in school, synagogue, the hockey rink, or the mall.

I have a role to play and I am working up the courage to empower myself to do it.  If I am made aware of discouraging behavior, I will share my disappointment regardless of when or where it took place.  If I am made aware of positive behavior, I will share my pride regardless of when or where it took place.  They will know that I have high expectations.   The older ones will know that I don’t issue a character reference or a principal recommendation lightly.  If you want me to recommend you to a high school, an honors society, or even to babysit, you will earn that recommendation by making for yourself a good name.

My students will know that I care who they are and that who they are matters.

Author: Jon Mitzmacher

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher is the Head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Jon has recently begun his rabbinical school journey at the Academy for Jewish Religion and is thrilled to have joined the faculty of the Day School Leadership Training Institute (DSLTI) as a mentor for Cohort 12. He was most recently the VP of Innovation for Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.  He is the former Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network.  He is also the former head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a K-8 Solomon Schechter, located in Jacksonville, FL, and part of the Jacksonville Jewish Center.  He was the founding head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Las Vegas.  Jon has worked in all aspects of Jewish Education from camping to congregations and everything in between.

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