Wednesday, Sept. 13th, was HDS’ second annual Mensch Day and the 4th annual world-wide Character Day (http://www.letitripple.org/
Dictionary.com defines mensch as: “a decent, upright, mature, and responsible person.” This is just what each of us strives to be, and just what we encourage our students to become. Walking down the hall at HDS, you may hear a teacher say, “Our mensches are being so responsible with their quiet voices in the hallway so as not to disturb others who are working,” or pointing out “Many of our mensches are helping without being asked!” Such encouraging and positive statements integrate the word “mensch” into our school’s shared vernacular and support the natural inclination of children to behave in such a way. But how do you teach character? How do you help develop ‘menschlechkite’ in young children?
The many skills and techniques necessary to teach math, Hebrew, science, Torah, social studies or English are complicated, but let’s summarize them in a fairly straightforward way with this very simplified recipe: Take teachers who are masters in their field. Give them a group of students. Give them time. Let them build relationships with their students. Support growth. Nurture curiosity. Meet students where they are and help them move forward. Give feedback. Soon, you’ll see evidence of new skills gained and new knowledge acquired. I believe these teachers most likely had the students actively engaged in the learning and personally invested in it. They may have created some excitement and piqued their students’ interest about the subject matter. They undoubtedly encouraged their students, helped them through difficulties, and taught them how to ask for help.
But how can this seemingly straightforward recipe be transferred to teaching character? How do you get a student to actively engage in, say, empathy? How do you get them excited about inclusion? About being humble? You model it. You appreciate it. You point it out in others and name it. And you do all of this with a strong commitment to being consistent. For a young child, learning ‘what it looks like’ to be humble or kind or decent, and being able to safely try it for oneself are the cornerstones of what’s necessary to internalize the behavior. We believe in the updated adage about practice – it’s not that practice makes perfect – practice makes permanent. And furthermore, the more one practices, the more natural it becomes.
Of course, using the pedagogical tools mentioned above help. In the classroom, we may read a book and discuss the particular “Mensch Maker” characteristic the story displays; we may have the students write a skit and act it out to demonstrate mensch-like behaviors; we may learn a song about being kind or persevering and ask students to add another verse to it; or we may bring a guest speaker whose endeavors represent a particular characteristic. Practicing how to use kind words, providing situations where a student can behave like a mensch, and above all, modeling this behavior, are the best places to start teaching character. And at HDS, we are all actively engaged in working on it.