Consider the following scenarios:
Debbie is an academically challenged 15-year-old who, after suffering through negative experiences in two different elementary and middle schools, has now started her freshman year of high school. Debbie struggles with self-confidence. She is capable of achieving at a level far greater than she demonstrates, and her teachers are looking for ways to motivate her to put more effort into her studies so that she can reach her potential, but the casualty of the struggles of her past has been her bright vision of the future. The consensus is that Debbie is in a place where she would rather fail without trying than make the effort but perform poorly, and this would only serve to further reinforce her pattern of feeling inadequate and incompetent.
Josh is a high school junior. Both of his parents are research scientists, and Josh’s dream is to become a nuclear physicist. However, Josh has always struggled academically with science and math and is having difficulty earning passing grades in those subjects. His parents and teachers are looking for ways to help Josh manage his expectations and plan for his future which, realistically, would not include nuclear physics.
One case is a student who could shine, but who can no longer visualize her dreams. The other is a student who dreams big but, sadly, seems not nearly capable of that to which he aspires. The challenge of the mechanech—who, whether in limudei kodesh or in secular studies, is not just an educator but a facilitator of the personal growth of the student—lies in appreciating this dynamic and in balancing abilities with aspirations, realism with dreams.
How do we as educators help guide our students on trajectories of growth that embrace their strengths, as well as acknowledge their limitations, but remain consistent and true to their own personal dreams and aspirations?
Firstly, we work to individualize our approach to each student. We identify areas of strength and work to ensure that every student has opportunities to feel successful in those areas, whether academic or otherwise. A student who struggles in math may be an amazing creative writer and contribute to the school newspaper. Another student may have learning challenges but excel in sports or in drama. Offering our students opportunities to engage in a variety of areas of potential interest will capitalize on individual strengths and build self-esteem by generating and validating feelings of success, while also broadening students’ horizons.
At the same time, we work to support our students in areas of weakness. Cultivating a perspective that acknowledges and normalizes the reality that we all have areas of vulnerability and challenge can help open up our students to accepting themselves in a realistic way and also encourages self-advocacy and asking for help. Fostering a supportive and collaborative atmosphere that addresses areas of weakness helps our students build strategies and skill sets that compensate for limitations that would otherwise impede success.
An individualized, positive, strengths-based approach creates a climate that supports growth. Another critical component of the development of a growth mindset is the focus on process. Cultivating an appreciation for process by collaboratively setting individual, realistic, incremental goals, as well as celebrating meeting those goals, creates opportunities for students to feel successful while accepting the need for further growth and improvement. Individualized short-term goals are set, taking into account the abilities and limitations of each student in the here and now, with an eye toward long-term goals that are realistic and also aligned with the student’s aspirations. Student collaboration in setting these goals creates buy-in and motivates effort toward meeting those goals. Helping students appreciate that growth is a process that often involves taking two steps forward and one step back, and even one step forward and two steps back fosters a lifelong growth mindset that focuses on process and celebrates incremental gains, reinforcing healthy self-esteem.
Ultimately, our students have long-term dreams and aspirations that can never be assumed to be beyond their reach, regardless of how unrealistic they may seem in the present. Perhaps most critical to setting our students up for success in fulfilling their long-term goals is the work we do in helping them develop the character traits that promote growth and success. We work to create a school environment that is structured and consistent, where expectations are clear and where responsibility and accountability are encouraged and rewarded. We cultivate in our students the strength of character to face adversity and work to overcome challenges and obstacles so that they are best positioned to meet their personal life goals.
Chinuch is about building people, about nurturing students who will graduate with the academic knowledge, social skills and positive middot to become lifelong learners who continue to grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually throughout their lives. Our message as educators is a message of encouragement and confidence, a message that is at once realistic and inspiring, and our aim is to give our students the tools they need to meet their goals and achieve their dreams.
By Frada Stone
Frada Stone, LCSW, is the director of SINAI Schools’ Maor at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, including the William Solomon Judaic Studies Program, where she also works with the RKYHS guidance department as director of mental health services. SINAI Maor High School partners with RKYHS to offer an academically rigorous, college-bound program for ninth to12th graders with academic and/or social challenges. Mrs. Stone also maintains a private psychotherapy practice in West Orange, where she is rebbetzin of Congregation B’nei Torah. She can be reached at [email protected]