Overcoming Disrespectful Classroom Behavior

Q: My 14-year-old son Yehoshua* has been getting in trouble in mesivta lately, due to his disrespectful attitude towards his Rebbi. Yehoshua never had this issue before with teachers, but I guess he and his classmates are taking advantage of a novice Rebbi. This first-year Rebbi is very soft and avoids punishing the boys. Instead of appreciating his intentions, they are making mincemeat out of him. Driving the Rebbi crazy has become the daily classroom entertainment. The teacher tries using incentives for good behavior, but only the goody-goodies are responding to it.

I spoke to the Rebbi once or twice since the school year began, and he made a lot of accurate points about my son’s behavior. When we spoke to Yehoshua, he agreed with this assessment (in theory), but described how humorous the Rebbi’s facial expressions and comments are, and how he finds it difficult to hold himself back from laughing. He feels that the Rebbi’s incentives are geared toward six-year-olds, and it’s insulting to him and his classmates to be offered such a juvenile reward system.

I told Yehoshua that all teachers deserve respect, especially those who are attempting to be kind-hearted and not strict. If such problematic classroom behavior continues, the principal will probably become more directly involved, and then the whole classroom experience will become full of tension. I considered speaking to the principal myself, but I don’t want to affect the teacher’s parnassah so early in his career.

What’s a good way to handle this?

A: The source of your son’s behavior is most likely multi-faceted.

A teenager often views himself as invincible and able to perform much better than the adults around him, leading to very limited levels of compassion towards adults in vulnerable positions.

Being part of a group of scoffers is often seen as being “cool,” while not joining this group is viewed as nerdy or goody-goody behavior. Perhaps the idea of being a follower needs to be discussed, as well as the greatness of being an individual with high standards and idealism. Stress personal and general examples of those who had the courage not to follow the crowd, and thereby to achieve great things.

If, indeed, certain idiosyncrasies of the teacher are very apparent, the idea of appropriate responses needs to be explored. Use examples of managing uncontrollable laughter as you seek to problem-solve together. One helpful response to such a situation is to focus on a morose and melancholy topic momentarily — just enough to re-focus your thoughts and hold back from inappropriate laughter. Part of maturing is thinking of ways to respond appropriately when your impulsive reactions are not constructive or helpful.

As far as speaking to the principal about the general classroom situation, each particular circumstance determines the best way to address the problem. Certain principals will blame the unruly students (sometimes being more concerned with the school’s reputation than being straightforward with parents), and little will be accomplished by such an encounter. If many parents have already complained, perhaps the situation is being worked on and your comments wouldn’t necessarily help.

In terms of incentives, you can ask your son what he thinks might motivate students in his class. Most students are encouraged to improve their school performance with some type of incentive (as we all are motivated by some type of reward — be it compliments or improved self-esteem). Perhaps if the Rebbi can better understand the mindset of this particular class, it would help its overall functioning, and give the teacher a more focused approach on how to handle the students.