When I was a rav in Baltimore I once began my drasha as follows:

Hershel’s mother was having a very hard time getting him out of bed one morning. Hershel finally said to his mother, “give me three reasons why it’s so important that I get out of bed.”
She replied, “All right, Hershel, I’ll give you three reasons why it’s so important that you get out of bed. First of all, because you’re Jewish. Secondly, today is Rosh Hashanah, and third, Hershel, you’re the Rabbi!

Baruch Hashem, I never had such trouble getting out of bed as a Rabbi and it never happened to me as a teacher, either. But I always did feel some twinge of nervousness on the first day of school. I wasn’t afraid of having difficulties with the children. I was concerned with how well I would do inspiring them to want to learn and take on into their lives the mitzvos I would be teaching them.

I knew how important it was that the children see me as someone who cared about each of them. I knew that if I could express genuine concern and interest in each of them al pi darko, they would respond with interest in what I had to say. I have two examples that lead me to believe that at least to some extent, I succeeded. Each year, the children did very well on the tests that I gave them, tests that required them to express themselves in a brief paragraph, rather than multiple-choice, matching, or true/false. Their answers showed comprehension rather than just retention. The second example is the expressions on the children’s faces in the class pictures together with me. It’s nice to see how happy they look, especially the 12 and 13-year-olds who don’t always smile for the camera just because they’re asked to.

I know a teacher who beautifully expresses concern and interest in every one of the girls she teaches. Girls confide in her because they trust her to really care and to protect their privacy. They also share exciting, happy news with her. They invite her to their bas mitzvos not pro forma, but because they can’t wait for their turn to dance with her. A girl once asked if she could dance with her because she was so excited about having her for a teacher the next year. I know rebbeim and morahs who form a kesher with students that lasts for years, sometimes decades. These are the teachers who care about each of their students and make sure each of their students knows it. These are the teachers who have gone beyond pedagogy and have embraced the huge responsibility of chinuch. Your child will feel the difference.

Like the protagonist of our opening story, your child may feel some trepidation at the beginning of the school year. For children also, school is a huge responsibility. For most children, doing well in the three areas of achievement for children is important. They want to succeed academically, socially, and behaviorally. These can be difficult tasks for many children, made even more daunting by the fact that they know how important all three of these are to their parents. Your task as a parent is to help your child with his concerns, not assure him that everything will be fine, since you don’t know that.

Let’s contrast two sample conversations between a child who is nervous about the beginning of the school year and a parent who wants to help her.

Rivka: The girls don’t like me cause I’m so tall and I never do well in math cause I’m stupid, then I get in trouble because I’m bored; I hate school, I don’t want to go back there!

It sounds like Rivka is concerned about failing in all three areas of achievement. She thinks she’s going to do poorly socially, academically and behaviorally because she has in the past. Her mother is now going to attempt to reassure her that things will be different in the coming school year.

Mom: Rivka, girls mature a lot over the summer and they also grow taller over the summer, so I think they’re going to be much nicer to you and I really wonder if you’re going to be as much taller as you were last year, anyway. And you’re going to be doing different math this coming year that you’ll find easier, and with a different teacher who might be able to explain it to you better than the teacher did last year, and then you won’t be bored, so you won’t get into trouble.

Mom is trying very hard to be reassuring but Rivka will probably not be reassured. Rivka will probably wonder how mom could know any of these things that she is describing as though she knew them for sure. She’ll appreciate mom’s efforts but she won’t be reassured.

Now let’s look at the contrasting conversation:

Rivka: The girls don’t like me cause I’m so tall and I never do well in math cause I’m stupid, then I get in trouble because I’m bored; I hate school, I don’t want to go back there!

Mom: Rivka, what gives you the impression that the girls don’t like you?

Rivka: They don’t always invite me to play with them at recess.

Mom: What happens when you go over to them and ask if you could join their game?

Rivka: I’ve never done that, I just wait for them to invite me.

Mom: I would like you to try doing that, Rivka. We can practice it later if you like. Who could help you with your math if it’s hard for you?

Rivka: I don’t know.

Mom: That’s okay; if your math is ever hard for you please let me know and we’ll talk about it. What could you do when you’re bored that wouldn’t result in your getting in trouble?

Rivka: That’s a good question. Let me think about it. Thanks, mom. I feel better!

In our second example, mom reassured Rivka by helping her figure things out rather than telling her what’s going to happen when she doesn’t really know, and Rivka acknowledged mom’s success.

May you and your children have a successful school year.

Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, relationships, and parenting. He works with parents and educators, and conducts parenting seminars for shuls and organizations. He can be reached at 718-344-6575.