Following the tragic death Malky Klein, a troubled young woman who was failed by the system, which shocked the Orthodox-Jewish community to its core, renowned Crown Heights educator Dena Gorkin wrote the following op-ed as a tribute to the young woman, which contains a list of tips that educators and parents should use for raising their children.
Who’s Responsibility Is It?
A Tribute to Malky Klein
By Dena Gorkin
I did not know Malky Klein, but I wish I had. There is much I wish I would have had the opportunity to say to her. Sadly, those opportunities will never be. Instead, I turn to my fellow educators, Mechanchm and Mechanchos around the world, with some humbly learned lessons on catching students before they fall.
Every school has been confronted with students that we just couldn’t bring to success. You know them, the ones who, despite our best efforts, continued to falter until they were stumbling down a rocky mountainside, and finally tumbling beyond our reach. And then we had to do the unthinkable–we had to let go. We had to realize that we were inadequate. Whatever we were, it was not enough.
There is enough blame to go around for miles and miles and we as a community can choose to take that route. OR…we can actually do something so that the future is brighter for every child that doesn’t fit perfectly into the system. We’ve all heard the saying, attributed to Einstien, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Well, it doesn’t take a literal or figurative Einstein to come to the conclusion that when it comes to education, there is a lot of insanity.
So let’s now waste anymore precious time or energy or lives figuring out who to point fingers at. Let’s do something different. Let’s parcel out the responsibilities.
As a school principal, I see great successes and dismal failures in the system. There are consistent gaps that are fertile ground for failure in students that do not fit a cookie-cutter mold. As educators, here is what we can do to bridge those gaps.
1) Get educated. Fast. Call Amudim. Operation Survival. MASK. Areivim. Take a course in substance abuse prevention at your local college or community center. Learn about the risk factors for substance abuse and learn to see them on the faces of your students. Yes the plague is in our community even if we close our eyes. So open them, see, and do something. The mistake most people—educators and parents alike—make is thinking that a child is not at risk if he or she doesn’t use drugs or alcohol. Here is a partial list of actual risk factors that could lead your child or your student to substance abuse and addiction:
- Lack of school success
- Lack of social success
- Family turmoil (divorce, strife, illness, death in family)
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Poor self-esteem
- Exposure to users or addicts
2) If you are educated, educate others. The Lubavitcher Rebbe is famous for the statement “If you know Alef, teach Alef.” If you know how to reach our youth, teach others your secret. If you know a person or place that is a good resource, share it with others. Teach parents to recognize and treat the risk factors mentioned above. Parents are often the last to know there is a problem. Teach your colleagues at school. Start a class in your school, shul or community. Keeping people informed saves neshamos.
It’s what you were put on this earth to do.
3) Find a way to make every student feel worthy every day. It could be a smile in the hallway. A “nice haircut!” An uplifting announcement over the PA system. A comment on a test paper. A note on a locker door. Get your staff busy finding ways to uplift your students. You will be surprised how quickly turning around relationships can improve a child’s will and ability to function within the system.
4) Create a protocol within your school for handling situations that are beyond the scope of what the school is capable of doing. Create an advisory board of people who are knowledgable in mental health issues and halachic ramifications of keeping a child vs. asking him or her to leave.
5) Be realistic about what you can and cannot do. If your school does not have the capacity to help a particular child, find a school or organization that does. לא עליך המלאכה לגמור….Meet with the parents with kindness and discuss the options. Do not be defensive. They are in far more pain than you are.
6) Don’t look to assign blame. Blaming is one of the ugliest traits a human being can have. It is the opposite of accountability. And the Aibershter holds us all accountable for the welfare of our fellow Jew.Guide them to a more effective situation. Do whatever you can, but don’t stop there. Whatever you can’t do, find out who can.
7)Speak to your Rav or Mashpiya. Take a moment to deeply reflect on the fact that this is a nisayon throughout which you will need guidance.
8) Make it absoluteluy clear to the child that he or she is not being “kicked out” but rather that this particular school situation doesn’t seem to be a good fit. Take responsibility for the inadequacy of the school to meet his or her needs. Explain that you have spent much time and energy looking for a place where this student will thrive and be happy and that you want to hear the good news once he or she is settled in a better environment.
9) After a child has left school and gone elsewhere, stay in touch. Pick up the phone. Give her a call. Ask how she is doing. Ask if there is anything you can do that might be helpful. Encourage staff members to do the same. Even if there is nothing practical to be done, you will be surprised at the positive feelings this child will carry with him or her after receiving that call.
10) Daven for the welfare of all of your staff and students.
May we all be reunited with our loved ones immediately with Moshiach Tzidkeinu!
This article was published in this past weeks edition of the Jewish Press