Stop Kvetching About Your Kid’s School

When we were invited out recently for a Shabbat meal, we hesitated before accepting. While we really like the couple who invited us, the conversation at their table tended to revolve excessively around their kids’ schools—notably, all the things they disliked about them. One school didn’t offer sufficient resources for their very bright son who had social anxiety issues. They protested what they felt was an overly rigid policy on dress codes and social media at the school their teenaged daughter attended.

With our own four children grown, we feel blessedly released from the ongoing obsession we also had over our children’s happiness and education in school. We Jews tend to be perfectionists. We expect a lot from ourselves and we expect a lot from others. And with day school tuition so high, we may even feel within our rights to demand almost tailor-made education for our children.

We accepted the Shabbat invitation, and thankfully the conversational landscape was much broader than we had anticipated. The schools caught a break that day.

When our children were very young, a dear friend taught me an important lesson. As an indefatigable school volunteer, she had no patience for parents who complained about schools but never offered to contribute in any way with better ideas, with their time or with other creative resources. I took that message to heart.

Some years later, however, I violated my policy and blew a gasket at a school administrator. “Mr. Kovaks” had been brought in as a sort of behavior cop to quell a rising tide of unruly behavior among the students. When my nine-year-old intentionally tripped another child in the yard, I was extremely upset with my son, but I was livid with Mr. Kovaks.

I bit my tongue many times when one of my kids came home announcing a new school policy I didn’t like or repeating an idea the teacher said that went against our hashkafic grain.

Instead of taking my son aside to speak with him privately, he humiliated him publicly in class. He punished him (and me!) with an absurd three-day suspension and many hours of mindless busywork. After two miserable days at home with my son in tears and refusing to do the work, I literally burst into Mr. Kovaks’ office, shaking in rage. I told him he had no understanding of basic psychology and failed to have made any aspect of the punishment fit the crime. Why didn’t he make my son apologize to the other child, and give him a number of chesed tasks to teach him more about kindness and self-control? Instead, Mr. Kovaks created an association of schoolwork with punishment, and of school administrators with humiliation.

The school fired Mr. Kovaks before the end of the year, but his short, disastrous reign cost the school the defection of many families, including mine.

Like many protective parents, I reacted severely, perhaps badly, because I felt he had damaged the psyche of an already sensitive child. Fortunately, I never encountered anything nearly this inept again in any of my children’s schools.

In general, I have tried to support the schools even when I have disagreed with certain policies or found certain teachers wanting. For example, when our daughter was in high school, I was appalled that her school was using an American history textbook by Howard Zinn, whose far-left politics infuse his widely used textbooks with a damaging anti-American bias. I called the general studies principal to discuss it. I gave her a copy of Michael Medved’s The Ten Big Lies About America (New York, 2008), which dispelled so many of Zinn’s theories and urged her to at least have the girls read some part of Medved’s fine book for balance, if she still insisted on using the Zinn textbook. Another time, seeing that my gifted fourth-grade son was bored during English class, I offered to come in for a weekly English enrichment session for a few students chosen by the teacher.

I bit my tongue many times when one of my kids came home announcing a new school policy I didn’t like or repeating an idea the teacher said that went against our hashkafic grain. At those times, I would say, “We may not like this new rule, but you’re in a good school that is giving you a solid Torah education. We won’t like everything that happens in school, but we need to accept it in good spirits.”

Raising our family in Los Angeles offered us the opportunity of many choices of day schools, a choice not necessarily available in smaller communities. Our three sons went to three different high schools, as we tried to follow the dictate of educating each of our kids “al pi darko—according to his nature.” It wasn’t easy. Not only did we have to meet several mandatory building funds and lost out on any multiple-child tuition breaks, but we also introduced hashkafic conflicts at home, as the schools’ hashkafot ranged from modern to black-hat Yeshivish. Yet these different schools were the right fits for our very different sons.

….With day school tuition so high, we may even feel within our rights to demand almost tailor-made education for our children.

We naturally want the very best for our precious children, who have different ways of learning, socializing and relating to Yiddishkeit. We feel frustrated and perhaps cheated when a school cannot meet our children’s distinct needs, when it is too small to offer tracked classes and lacks the budget for educational resource specialists. But no school can be all things to all students.

The hallmark of a Jew should be expressing hakarat hatov on a regular basis, and if we fail to do this for the teachers who work so hard to educate our children, we undermine one of the basic purposes of a Jewish education. When we complain too much at our children’s behest, we spoil them, weaken their bond to Torah, and create more of the dreaded “snowflakes” who cannot cope with any challenging ideas or people.

I have seen some parents who have tried too hard to keep their kids happy in schools, with disastrous results. I have watched parents move their kids from school to school to placate their children’s demands “to be with their friends” or for a looser environment. I have heard these parents complain bitterly that it was the teachers’ faults for not instilling a love of Torah or teaching effectively, when in fact the children had learning challenges or were spiritually apathetic. Sadly, I have watched many of these kids grow into adults with little to no commitment to Torah observance.

No school is perfect. Neither is any parent, or child. Perhaps we can keep these ideas in mind to foster a better relationship with our children’s schools . . . and with our children.

Judy Gruen is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. Her latest book is The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith (2017).

How and When to Criticize Your Child’s School

Canvassing several other parents and educators about this topic from a frum e-mail list I belong to, I received an avalanche of responses. The following quotes, paraphrased for brevity, are particularly illuminating:

“As a teacher of twenty-plus years, I have found that parents need to prioritize their complaints in order to be taken seriously. Don’t make a fuss over small issues if you want your child to learn resilience. Of course, parents must be their children’s advocates, particularly with more serious or underlying issues that have not been dealt with or have remained under the radar. . . . Offer compliments and thank you’s so that criticisms will be more palatable.”

“I used to complain to teachers when I was upset about something until a teacher said, “You know, this is the third time this year you are complaining about something. Isn’t there anything good in my class?” I was shocked and disgusted with myself.”

“I stopped complaining about my son’s school when I realized that he simply had needs the school could not meet, physically or psychologically. When I accepted that I could not change the school, I moved my son to another school with a better environment for him, though it was not a great match hashkafically. Schools are package deals.”

“I learned an important lesson from a principal who asked that parents speak directly to her regarding issues and not take them to the teacher. At first I thought this would constitute lashon hara, or might get a teacher in trouble unnecessarily, until she explained that she was protecting her teachers from needless aggravation; she was running interference for them. She was a loyal, dedicated, amazing principal.”

This article was featured in Jewish Action Fall 2018.