Influencing the Moral Development of Students

Posted on November 24, 2009

Based on a conversation I had today with an educator at a day school I want to share this article I wrote a few years ago. I believe that the message is just as important and applicable today and I welcome your feedback.

How can schools truly influence the moral development of their students? At the outset, it is essential for schools to create their own definition of “moral development” and decide why it is important for them to incorporate it into their program. I believe the reason for doing chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam is to make God’s vision for the world a reality. I also believe that these Jewish values are synonymous with moral development and are natural aspects of Jewish life. That definition and attitude determines the method I use in addressing them.

Perhaps the most important way of impacting the moral development of students is to effectively train teachers in dealing with chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam. It is unrealistic to think that the culture and nature of the school will change, unless the teachers are actively involved in the process. So how do we train teachers and get them interested in dealing with these values?

There are four critical ways:

  1. Devote energy, time and money. Teachers need to see that chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam olam are valued and organic to the academic program and nature of the school. Teaching these Jewish values is different than utilizing classroom management techniques or applying a multiple intelligence approach. It is not enough to have a curriculum or program on these topics. Rather, staff training sessions should be provided, so that teachers will be taught how to successfully implement programs that instill these values.
  2. Encourage and empower teachers to think “out of the box” in these areas. Staff should be given an opportunity to use their creativity and talent in teaching these values, rather than using the standard methods of instruction.
  3. Honor teachers for their work in this area. What better way to show that teaching our students about these values is important than by honoring their teachers at the school dinner, in the newsletter or at graduation? Acknowledging teachers in this way can greatly impact the entire teaching staff.
  4. Teachers will willingly participate in this program if they feel ownership of it. Therefore, include teachers in the planning and meetings of initiatives in this area. Provide them with release time and resources to attend conferences on these and related topics with in the Jewish and general educational community.

Each one of the four methods described above can be implemented on its own. However, to have optimum impact, it is ideal for all four methods to be addressed simultaneously as part of a calculated ideology.

Core Values, Woven into the Curriculum and Nature of the School
An essential question we need to ask ourselves is, “How do we, as educators, view chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam?” Do we view them as an organic and natural part of the school culture and curriculum or do we view them as something external? The answer to this question will determine the approach and potentially the success of this endeavor. I believe that regardless of the affiliation of the school, these values must be seen as core and woven into the curriculum and nature of the school. This can be achieved by integrating them within Judaic studies while teaching chagim, tefilla and Tanakh. We merely need to approach the text from a different vantage point. For example, I think it is safe to say that all Judaic studies teachers have creative and meaningful lessons about Pesach. However, how many of us highlight Maot Chitim (giving charity to the poor), a mitzvah part and parcel of this holiday to the laws and customs of the holiday? There are numerous natural texts from which to teach these values, including Aleinu, Parshat K’doshim, Chet HaMeraglim (the sin of the spies sent in to view the land before the Israelites entered Canaan) and the Rambam’s Hilchot Matanot L’Aniyim. The list goes on. These values are ones that should certainly not be omitted in any Judaic studies curriculum and the Pesach curriculum is one place in which to highlight it. Incorporating these values should also be applied equally to general studies. In fact, if these values are incorporated in an interdisciplinary fashion, it will enable students to see connections to their lives and what they are learning in a very real and profound way.

Changing the School Culture
Aside from the curriculum, there are a variety of other ways to address these within the school culture.

A primary example is to change the Bnai Mitzvah culture. Schools should encourage their students to partake in one of the local, regional or national teen philanthropy programs; do mitzvah projects; volunteer; partake in twinning programs; give a portion of their gifts and money to charity; and donate leftover food to a homeless shelter. There are hundreds of things Bnai Mitzvah can do — from the invitation to the centerpieces — that can transform the nature of their event into a celebration of inculcating Jewish values. Many schools have students celebrate in the school and hold classes about what it means to become Bnai Mitzvah. Those schools and teachers can set the tone in this area.

How can schools effectuate change in the culture, regarding these values? The list is virtually limitless. Offer a club or elective in chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam. Doing so illustrates that these ideas are valued and will provide a forum for students to become more involved. Facilitate volunteer opportunities for your students. This will highlight the connection between school and community, and between what they learn and what they do. Foster relationships between local agencies such as hospitals, soup kitchens, etc. Invite guest speakers to present on these topics. Have a theme of the month or year and have each grade do something age-appropriate relating to that value. Highlight these programs within the weekly Shabbat newsletter. Provide opportunities for families to study these values and implement them together.

Why is addressing moral development important?
These Jewish values define our schools so it is essential that they play a central role in the academic program. These values apply to all Jews, regardless of affiliation. We often talk about Jewish values and appropriate programming offers students and teachers an opportunity to learn and live them. Addressing these concepts adds value to the already existing school structure and curriculum. These values, if addressed properly, can be a powerful catalyst in transforming individuals, families, the school, and school community.

Many school leaders already view the essential Jewish values of chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam as part of their mandate and/or mission statement and provide resources to make them a reality. However, it is critical for school leaders to be reflective practitioners and realize the work that can be done in educating our students about chesed, tzedakah, and tikkun olam. Regardless of how successful our curriculum or program already is, can we ever say that we have maximized our potential in these important areas?

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