(Note: This article contains criticism, not condemnation. It is addressed to teachers and parents of—for lack of a better word—average children attending average schools. It is not addressed to those who work in overcrowded classrooms with a large number of behaviorally or emotionally impaired children, whether impaired for biological, neurological, societal, familial or environmental reasons. This article should be read within a parenthesis of admiration and gratitude for all teachers who have dedicated their lives to the education of children—mine and others’. To all of them, including those I address in my criticism, I give thanks.)

I’ve been to scores of school conferences with my children over the past twenty-some years.

Among some of the most common comments I’ve heard are:

“He/she is not living up to his/her potential.”

“If he only tried harder, he could do so much more.”

“She doesn’t participate/listen/pay attention.”

“He is restless and moves around a lot.”

“I present the material, but your child doesn’t seem to get it, even though others in the classroom do.”

“Have you considered private tutoring?”

Rarely do these teachers see themselves as having anything to do with my child’s school performance. Responsibility for poor school performance (as judged by the teacher) is primarily placed on my child and/or on my wife and me. We leave the conference feeling that we should do nothing but sit with our children, helping them with their homework in every bit of their and our free time. We berate ourselves for not being more success-oriented with them, more demanding, stricter, more focused on their future success rather than on their present happiness. Suddenly, their hobbies and free time seem evil and distracting from the business of their life as students, as they prepare in the classroom to be future contributing members of adult society.

I get the feeling, and sometimes it is stated by the teacher, that if the top ten percent of the class is doing well, then the teacher is doing well. Obviously these teachers think that if some of the students are grasping the material, it is the fault of the others that they are not.

And if this fault is not the result of my child’s lack of trying, then it must be the fault of some inherent learning deficit, or lack in the home environment, that requires outside intervention—outside the classroom, outside the teacher’s realm of responsibility.

Being the provocative person that I am, I ask these teachers, “Well, what could you be doing to help my child learn better?”

This question always evokes a certain degree of shock or disbelief. I’m not sure if the shock is simply that I dared ask the question, or that anyone would think that the teacher, rather than the student or the home, could possibly be lacking in any way. After all, he/she has been teaching for years and many of his/her students have been quite successful.

But I’m also concerned about the ones that are not so successful, the marginal ones. Not only because one or more of my children fell into this category at some time or other in their school careers, but also because I know so many more children—children of friends or colleagues—who, by the school’s and teacher’s standards, seem to be “failing.”

What about them? What is their fate? Are they all doomed if their parents can’t afford private tutors and/or expensive schools tailored to their special needs? What will become of them if their parents can’t manage to change their home environments into havens of scholarship, such that their children immediately understand and respond to the importance of paying attention and grasping “the material,” regardless of how uninspiring the material or teacher might be, or how disruptive or distracting or boring the class atmosphere?

I also ask this question because, by and large, I have pretty good kids. They are motivated, well behaved (within normal kid limits), helpful at home, and by and large responsive to positive intervention and stimulus. They relate well to adults, though they, too, have their standards when it comes to how they respond to those with whom they relate.

And, finally, I ask this question because it seems to me that the responsibility for education lies with the teacher.

One of my children recently talked to me about the difference between “educating” and “teaching.” I asked her what she thought the difference was, and she said: A teacher is interested in what she is teaching; an educator is interested in the students.

A teacher, she described, is someone who stands in front of the class and gives over “the material.” A teacher, she said, expects the students to just “get it.” And if they don’t, it’s the kid’s fault.

An educator, she said, is looking at the student, looking to see if she understands or not—and if not, is trying to figure out how to help her get it more easily. An educator, she said, understands that all kids are different, that they learn at different speeds and in different ways, and then tries to find a way to teach her students in a way that they can understand. It’s like a partnership, she said, not a war or a contest.

I loved that last sentence: like a partnership, not a war or a contest.

And it certainly matches what I feel in those school meetings. If my children feel anything like what my wife and I feel in these meetings, then they’re going through the day feeling blamed and ashamed, criticized and lacking.

Not too conducive to learning, it seems to me.

The other thing that has always mystified me, and that provokes me to ask my questions in these school meetings, is that my children seem to “perform” differently with different teachers. One son, for example, was completing first grade, and at the end-of-year parent-teacher conference I was told that he was simply not going to be able to keep up with the other students the following year. He was having too much trouble learning to read and write. The teacher had neither advice nor solutions. He had done all he could. The fault lay with my child, and with the deficit of time being spent with him at home.

Because of this conference, and the critical and hopeless attitude I encountered in the ones that came before it, I took my child out of this school and put him in another. I would not take the risk that by the time my child reached the age of seven, he would already be branded “a failure.”

The next year he was reading and writing like a little bandit, and his teacher had nothing but praise for him. He actually called him a “little tzaddik.” Suddenly he had gone from failure to success, with the only change being the teacher and the school. My child who couldn’t learn to read was now spending free time at home, reading books and magazines without effort.

Then, the next year, his school day extended, and he had a morning teacher and an afternoon teacher. The morning teacher thought he was the best thing since sliced bread. Attentive, well behaved, bright, participatory, etc., etc.

The afternoon teacher found him to be lazy, inattentive, slow and uncooperative, a description that I thought fit the teacher to a tee when I met him in the teacher conference. (Sorry, folks, but someone has to say these things.)

When I spoke to this teacher about the relationship between him and my son, he didn’t know what I was talking about, nor why that should make any difference in my son’s ability to behave and grasp the material. I noticed how little eye contact he made with my wife and me, and wondered if the same was true with my son.


A friend of mine just told me about his child, who is having a so-so year. With some teachers he’s doing great; with others, not so well. After conferring with both the teacher and the principal, it was decided that tutoring was the only solution for my friend’s boy. His father, my friend, questioned the need for tutoring, since there are only ten kids in his son’s class. It was hard for him (and me) to believe that with so few students, the teacher couldn’t find a way to tailor his teaching to meet the needs of the different students. But, in answer to this question, the principal told my friend that this teacher was brilliant in the subject that he was teaching, and gave it over in a very clear and succinct manner. It was unrealistic, he said, to expect the teacher to adjust his style to meet the needs of above-average, average and below-average students.

I asked my son, who is also in the same class (a different son than the one mentioned above), about the teacher. He said that the teacher goes over the material once, expects everyone to get it, doesn’t review, and never changes his tone or pace of delivery. He said that the brightest kids in the class had no problems, but two-thirds of the class was lagging behind, including him. Well, I thought, that’s interesting. The teacher is missing two-thirds of his class, reaching and teaching three out of ten kids. Something didn’t sit right with me, especially since my son was not one of the top three. He was not having the same amount of difficulty as my friend’s son, but enough difficulty that I was concerned. My friend and I decided to talk to the principal together, at which time we were stonewalled. Our wives convinced us that no amount of intervention was going to change the way this teacher taught, and encouraged us to find a tutor for our sons.

Enter the tutor.

After he’d had a few sessions with my son, I called the tutor and asked how my son was doing. Wonderfully, he said. He’s very bright and catches the material very easily. The thing the tutor was most impressed with was the level of questions my son asked, and his desire to learn and understand.

When I asked my son about this he said, yeah, it’s so different from my class. I don’t get to ask many questions in class, and when I do, the teacher is always so impatient and makes me feel bad for asking; he gets irritated because I’ve interrupted him. So I stopped asking questions.


I must reiterate that my children are, by and large, bright and successful children. They pursue many interests. They read constantly. They are, each in his or her own way, curious, and love to learn about things. They can hold their own at the Shabbat table, giving over the week’s Torah portion or speaking about many things in ways that hold the interest of parents, siblings and guests alike. They are also bold, energetic, and like to laugh a lot.

Yet, in the course of their school career, each one of them has, at one time or another, engendered a school conference and school experience such as I am describing. And always, in times of difficulty, the blame falls squarely on the child’s shoulders, while teachers continue to deliver their material and run their class in the same way, relating to my children’s difficulties by trampling on their self-esteem and self-image with blame, insult and criticism.

I admit I have biases.

I believe that children innately want to be successful. I believe that children are curious and want to learn. I believe that they want their school experience to be positive and enjoyable.

I also believe that children are children. They get restless when bored, and sometimes even when not. They need to be able to move around more than adults do—or would like children to. They cannot tolerate boredom, nor can they tolerate injustice or hypocrisy. They are willing to give respect, but they also need some sent their way; and, like most people, they respond poorly when respect is demanded of them, and give it freely when it is earned and deserved.

Like most people, children are kind when treated kindly, and well behaved when others behave well towards them. Like most people, they don’t respond well to criticism or judgment, especially when leveled unfairly. Like most people, they respond well to praise and encouragement, to people who foster their positive self-image, as opposed to those who make them feel stupid and like a failure.

And more than most people, children’s imaginations must be captured if they are to be attentive and learn. They also need to believe that they are cared about by those who expect their performance, and this caring must be demonstrated in the individual attention they receive: attention that considers their level of intelligence; their feelings; and their ability, because of their innate natures, to grasp some subjects, while having difficulty with others.

I am not blaming only the teachers, nor am I letting children or parents off the hook. I am strict with my children about respecting their teachers, regardless of how negatively they may perceive them. And my wife and I constantly strive to point out the best qualities of their teachers, and the importance of learning the subjects they teach, and of behaving well at school. We believe that there are modes of behavior and decorum that our children must adhere to, regardless of their likes and dislikes, or judgments, or even boredom. And, for the most part, my children respond to our admonishments and advice.

But in my heart of hearts, and especially following these infamous school conferences, I believe what my daughter said: that school should be a partnership, and in a partnership, responsibility is equally shared. The child looks at what he/she can do better; the parents look at what they can do better; and the teacher looks at what he/she can do better. And the principal looks at what all of them can do better together. He/she is the expert and resource on how to better organize classes, how to aid a teacher in relating better to each of the students in his/her class. The joint goal of all of them—us—is to find a way that enables each child to succeed at school, with success defined as learning, feeling good about themselves, behaving respectfully and appropriately, and enjoying their childhood.

In this environment, whether in the classroom or the school conference, a very different kind of dialogue would take place. A dialogue not focused on fault, blame and deficit, but on improvement, encouragement and advantage. In this environment—and I’ve been in this kind of school environment as well—not only are the students praised and encouraged by the teachers, but so are the teachers praised and encouraged by the children and parents.