Teaching Values Builds Self Esteem


The Lubavitcher Rebbe[i] used to distribute dollars for charity every Sunday in Brooklyn New York and during that time anyone could ask the Rebbe whatever was currently bothering them. A certain teacher from California understood that the Rebbe had thousands of educational institutions around the world under him. He also knew that the Rebbe had dedicated many talks which he delivered about the fundamentals of teaching and that the American congress in 1978 instituted a day of “Education and Sharing” in honour of the Rebbe. The teacher knew as well that since there were so many people coming to see the Rebbe, he would only have a few moments to ask a question and so decided to ask him “for advice in Chinuch (education)”. The Rebbe answered three words - “build self esteem”.

The recent holiday of Chanukah and the sphere of Chinuch (education) have an intrinsic connection to each other. The famous medieval Talmudic commentator Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (also known as the Maharasha) comments[ii] that the words in Hebrew for Chanukah and Chinuch come from the same root in the Hebrew language (the Hebrew letters ches, nun, chof חנך)

The word Chanukah literally means the dedication of something new (e.g. the Temple or the Alter in the time of the original miracle of Chanukah). This is the same idea as education which is when we start another thing anew, teaching the child.

Education is also connected to the miracle of Chanukah in a different way. The miracle of Chanukah happened when the Jews found one jug of pure olive oil stamped with the seal of the high priest[iii]. This jug of oil would be used to fulfil the commandment to light the Menorah in the Temple. The amount of oil should have lasted for one day in the jug but instead lasted for eight days. According to Jewish law the Jews could have lit with the impure oil since when the whole community is ritually impure then the laws of impurity are suspended. Nevertheless, in order to show how beloved the Jewish people are to G-D, G-D made a miracle which caused that the Jews could do the Commandment in the best way possible. The Jews therefore did not have to rely on any legal leniencies when lighting the Menorah.

Chanukah therefore teaches us that when something is started in holiness, from the very beginning it should be done without relying on leniencies. This lesson is also relevant to education since when we start the Jewish education of the children (which is seen as one of the holiest parts in the framework of our lives) it needs to be done without compromising on Jewish values.

The importance of education and the consequence of compromising the values which a child is given from very young, can be seen through a parable. Man is compared to a tree, as the verse states[iv] “Adam Eitz hasadeh”. If one makes a nick in a tree when it is already grown, then the nick is only in the place where it was made and besides this place there is no other mark or problem. However, when a nick is made in a seed which is planted in the ground, the whole tree can grow in a crippled way. The same is true with education, as the earlier in life Jewish values are taught in a compromised fashion, the worse effect it will have on the child when they get older.[v]

Education, Purpose and Self Esteem

As it was explained above there is a very deep connection between values which give an individual a purpose and how a child progress will then proceed throughout life. The concept of the importance of values which are given to a child are a fundamental point which many educators gloss over. The focus or lack of values in regards to teaching will affect the self esteem of the student[vi]. The student’s self esteem is intrinsically linked to a sense of purpose in life over all and in each thing that they do in particular. The first thing which a teacher needs to do is to help the student feel they have a purpose in their learning and their education.

The world famous psychiatrist Victor Frankl in his book “Man’s search for meaning” explains that everyone needs to have meaning in their lives. A lack of meaning in what an individual does can lead to depression and a lack of self esteem. When an individual has a moral purpose, then they need to have some knowledge of how to attain their goal. The knowledge being taught in of itself is not the goal but a means to an end and the more the person understands, the closer they are of reaching their goal. The knowledge then will help the individual with feeling more confident and having a healthy feeling of self worth as they move towards a meaningful life.

From a Torah perspective a purpose which a student could have would be to shine up the world around them being a living example of a Torah Jew. In order to achieve this purpose the individual themselves needs to be healthy, they also need to try and support themselves, so that they are not a burden on others. In order to support themselves and help others they will need to learn in school the necessary information to live a Torah life and be a productive part of society. The learning at school then becomes a meaningful experience which builds self esteem and a feeling of self worth.

Any compromise in the students understanding of their purpose in life will decrease their motivation to learn. The consequence will be a lack of self esteem. What would a lack of self esteem look like? Dr Melanie Fennel who works at Oxford University, in her book “overcoming low self esteem” (2009) paints a picture of an individual who lacks self confidence, self respect, self worth etc.

When a student does not have an appropriate level of self esteem then they will not clarify the points that do not understand or fully grasp. This could lead to the student disengaging from the learning process and not achieving their learning potential. When feeling the proper level of self esteem the student will try and develop the ideas they learn and try to make them relevant (as much as they can) to their lives. A feeling of worthlessness will cause the student to remain stagnant in their personal growth and a lack of motivation to apply any new knowledge which they acquire.

Self esteem is crucial for a student and its effect whilst during the learning process or after can have amazing effects. Unfortunately, when the self esteem is missing, it can cause the whole teaching process to be a waste of time.

When a student has a healthy dose of self esteem then they will comfortable in clarifying with their teacher or parent, the points which they do not understand. If the student gets something wrong when they have good self esteem they can go on to try again and not feel like a failure.

When children are growing up or in university, the framework of the education needs to include teaching about the purpose of individuals. The purpose would need to include how each person has unique abilities and therefore has a responsibility to everyone else to use their talents for the good of themselves and everyone else. They also need to know that there is accountability for what they do or don’t do, as there is a higher power who is concerned that they achieve their best potential.

When someone feels they have a moral purpose then they will be more eager to reach their goal by learning and putting into practice what they have learnt. The person will feel their self worth increase as they attain a greater understanding of how to put into practice their goal. The learning itself is building their self esteem, causing the student to believe more in themselves and creating a self respect. The knowledge which they gain is seen as a means to an end and the individual understands that they have a deeper purpose even if they do not attain what others achieve.

On the other hand if the student has no moral purpose in their life then the knowledge that they gain is just self serving. The more the individual grasps then the more significant and valuable they feel, which when compared to others could cause feelings of bloated self importance and a denigrating attitude to those who do not understand as much as they do. If they are not able to grasp the ideas that are being taught then the actual learning experience can cause a decrease in self worth and self esteem.

It must also be pointed out that the teacher also needs to have a healthy level of self esteem and this is also included in the above answer of the Rebbe concerning education “build self esteem”. The teacher needs to work on their feelings of self worth in teaching their students. This does not mean building up an ego but realising (just as with their student) that they are doing an important job and they have the potential to reach the children they are teaching.

The above article is a general structure for people but for specific problems a qualified therapist should be consulted.

Yitzchok Kaye BA, Pg. Dip., Msc is a trained, qualified Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, who also specializes in other therapies. He helps individuals and couples with their challenges and issues. He has been a practising therapist for a number of Counselling Organisations but now has his own private practice. He is available around the world via Skype. He can be contacted at Yitzkaye@gmail.com

[i] This account was told to the brother of Rabbi Yitzchok Klyne from Manchester (who I heard it from). Rabbi Klyne’s brother teaches at the same school in California who asked the Rebbe and heard it from the teacher himself.

[ii] Maharasha Shabbos 21,b

[iii] Shabbos 21,b

[iv] Devarim 20,19

[v] Lekutei Sichot volume 1 Chanukah

[vi] Obviously the way that the teacher or instructor treats their students will affect the student’s self esteem. The more critical the teacher is, criticising in an uncaring fashion then the student can lose their feeling of self worth. The teacher on the other hand can help build the self esteem by using praise when the student does well and showing that they care about the individual student. In this article the focus is on a different aspect of teaching which is many times overlooked.


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