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Problem with my Kid's Rebbe

This post originally appeared as a column in the Five Towns Jewish Times:

Dear Elisheva,

We think we may have an issue with our son and his Rebbe, and we’re not sure what to do about it. According to our son, who is in middle school, this Rebbe has been routinely picking on him and some of the other kids, in ways that seem unfair and unkind. I’ve heard the other kids joking about him playing favorites and randomly yelling at some kids “for no reason.” They say he makes fun of them sometimes too, calling them names, and also makes jokes putting down different groups of people. I’ve heard this from the kids in carpool for a few months now, but lately I even heard some of the parents talking about it at a kiddush. I understand that not every teacher will be a fit for every kid’s personality and learning style, but this feels like something different. Even on ‘meet the teacher night’ we noticed that his tone of speaking was a little sarcastic, kind of rough around the edges. Our son has always done pretty well- socially, behaviorally, and religiously (academically he’s about average, but it’s never been a problem either.) He didn’t love all his teachers and Rebbeim every year, but he loved some, and always got along with the others, and definitely never reported anything like this before. Over the last few months, he seems to be pulling back. He seems less happy, less confident, less interested religiously, and even a little moody. I don’t know if it’s all connected to the situation with the Rebbe, but he’s not himself, and we’re worried. We’re always told to support the school and the teachers when there’s an issue with a child, in order to model and maintain a respectful attitude and partnership with the Yeshiva. But I’m watching my son changing over the year, and not feeling good about this. Is there anything we can do?

- A concerned parent

Dear Concerned Parent,

Kudos to you for being tuned in to your child’s emotional experience and taking it seriously. It’s so painful to see a kid who’s been thriving, suddenly or gradually begin to struggle. And you’re right- it’s hard to know what’s really going on with him. Middle school coincides with puberty, and a lot of developmental, social, and hormonal changes and challenges that can totally affect mood and behavior. Many boys will be preparing for their bar mitzvahs and thinking about high school plans, which also invites new feelings and exploration of identity. But it would be remiss to ignore what you’re hearing in surround sound about your son’s experience with this Rebbe. Modeling respect for Yeshivas and Rebbeim is a value, but that doesn’t mean not speaking up if there’s a concern.

Schools have to run organizationally- they need to hire from a limited pool, they need to fund-raise, they need to be sure their systems are running efficiently. Administrators have a lot on their plates, and virtually every single school’s mission statement includes prioritizing the needs of each individual student. And while I believe they’re sincere in that intent, the reality is that they need to address students’ needs primarily as a collective. Because schools are collective; definitionally. Which is why it’s so important for parents to be attuned to, and when necessary, advocate for their children. Most educators and principals welcome open, collaborative dialogue with parents, in a constructive, problem-solving tone.

There’s a big difference between disparaging a Rebbe or a school, and validating a child’s feedback. Now especially, we’re seeing the devastating repercussions of adults allowing abuse to go unchecked in the name of not wanting to make waves with educators or other people in power.

Teaching is like other professions, in that there is a spectrum of performance. Many teachers and Rebbeim are superstars- warm, loving, creative, caring, wise, and gifted, may G-d bless and multiply them. Some are mediocre- they get the job done, no fanfare, no foul. Some are incompetent, yet innocuous. But some are subpar. Some of these are physically abusive, which is egregious, and some are emotionally abusive which is also unconscionable. I believe that schools try hard to get as many wonderful educators into their classrooms as possible, filling in as needed with the average ones, and that they try to weed out the bad apples in the interview process, when possible. But it’s not a perfect science, and there’s pressure to fill positions. I also imagine they rely heavily on feedback from families to know how the relationships between the teachers and their demographics are working out.

I recognize that as of now, your impressions of this Rebbe are based on some kids’ reports, not witnessing much firsthand. And while I’m sure it happens occasionally that a decent teacher gets an unfairly poor reputation among the kids and parents, generally, when you hear similar things repeatedly from multiple students, you can get a pretty good idea of what’s happening.

The first thing you’ll want to do is let your son know that you’re hearing and seeing him. Ask him if he’s ok, if anything else is bothering him. You can tell him you’ve noticed he doesn’t seem like his usual happy self lately, and that he can talk to you about anything at all. If he brings up the Rebbe, try to listen in a calm, nonreactive, not-alarmist, and nonjudgmental way. Don’t tell him it’s chutzpadik or lashon hara, don’t tell him that whatever a Rebbe says is right, or that he must be mistaken or exaggerating- just listen and ask clarifying questions. (Also don’t say things like: Wow that Rebbe sounds awful.) Ask him what he thinks and feels about it all. If what you’re hearing is indeed troubling, such as examples of verbal abuse, or clear, ongoing humiliation, you can absolutely validate your son’s discomfort with that, and gently confirm that “in our family, we believe in being kind to and about others- even if they’re different from us, and especially if they’re there in the room.”

What to do next is tricky. A toxic Rebbe experience, particularly at that formative age, can severely affect a child’s development- emotionally and spiritually, often in ways that last beyond that year. I always think that if a weekly therapy session can be life changing, imagine how much impact is made from many hours a week under the tutelage of a teacher. I still have vivid memories of lessons learned in elementary school- the Talmud says: What you learn when you’re young isn’t forgotten. For better and for worse.

Have you been in contact with the Rebbe? Is he approachable? Do you have a working relationship with administrators in the school, whereby you could meet and discuss your concerns- discreetly, respectfully, and constructively? Is your son asking to switch classes? Is that an option from the school’s perspective? Does he have friends in a parallel class? Do you know if the Rebbe is kinder there? Sometimes, a switch to another class, or even a different school, is warranted, but those are not decisions to make impulsively, and not if he doesn’t want to. Unfortunately, there is no easy, quick fix for what you’re describing. If your son ends up staying in this class, and the Rebbe does too, he will need a lot of extra TLC, processing, and damage control from the home.

I do believe it’s possible to model respect for a Yeshiva and even for a Rebbe, while also disagreeing with something that’s going on there, and letting your son know that’s how you feel. (I realize this position could be seen by some as controversial.) I also believe that kids will have many teachers and Rebbeim in life, but only one set of parents. So if we need to err on the side of believing and supporting a child, even at the expense of alienating an educator, in order to preserve a healthy, trusting relationship with that child, and with his educational and religious experience, that feels like the wiser choice.

The good news is, most of us have survived the occasional bad teacher, and hopefully managed to heal and seek out healthier influences. Wishing you luck in whatever you choose to do, and hoping your son has many other positive role models in his life- now and in the future.

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