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Isn't it pretty?

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cookie Cutter

Some of my commentors below suggested I look for guidance positions in Bais Yacov (Girl's Orthodox Jewish) schools. While I would not reject any offer without reason, the following story illustrated precisely why I have not been chasing such jobs:

A good friend of mine has been teaching at the local Orthodox girl's junior high school for the past two years. My friend had no training or qualifications when she started. No college degree or teaching experience whatsoever. But she comes from a known family and she was offered a position. She has worked incredibly hard to be an excellent teacher to her students. She has great classroom management, she teaches in creative ways to engage the students and she has constantly worked on her teaching skills and put in long hours outside the classroom in order to excel in her position. I have been extremely impressed and proud of what a good teacher she has become.

This friend also happens to be somewhat out of the box. She is totally committed to the Orthodox lifestyle, but she is a creative, artsy type and she has a strong personality which has sometimes put her at odds with the "typical" Orthodox standard (probably a big reason that we get along so well). While she completely adheres to the dress code guidelines of tzniut (modesty), of skirts below the knee, sleeves below the elbow, collarbone covered and since she has been married, hair fully covered, she could be characterized as a "Hot Chanie" with flair. She puts herself together absolutely beautifully, but she would not be looked upon as an "aidel maidel."

This afternoon, two weeks before the start of school, she got a call from the principal of the school who wanted to discuss a couple things with her before school starts. The main thrust of the conversation was my friend's dress.

According to this principal, who my friend has spoken very highly of in the past, "the goal of the school is to create cookie cutter children." She also stated that while it is admirable that my friend stresses and insists on respect and diligence in the classroom, her dress is confusing for its lack of being cookie cutter.

I'm extremely troubled by this for several reasons. First of all, children are NOT cookie cutter, no matter how hard you try to push them to be that way. For that to be the goal of the school completely disregards what it means to be a human being. And I also believe it completely disregards the concept from Torah that God made us each with our individual talents and strengths. To me, a school should be all about nurturing the individual child, and helping those children figure out who they are, rather than pressuring them to be cookie cutter. This attitude from the school also influences parents to treat all of their children the exact same way. And I think most parents who have more than one child will be able to tell you that they are each uniquely different, and the same treatment does not fit each of them.

I'm also troubled because this kind of attitude is exactly what will push a child away from Judaism. It will cause a child who, like my friend, doesn't quite fit the mold, to resent and despise the implication that there is something wrong with him or her for being slightly different or not fitting in to that cookie cutter.

Finally, I'm extremely disturbed that the school values a cookie cutter mentality amongst their teachers more highly than their teaching abilities. Yes, schools are expected to teach values to an extend, but the children are there to learn. And a school that would rather have a mediocre teacher who is completely uncreative but follows the herd is exactly the kind of school I would never want to send my child to, much less pay unaffordable tuition to attend.

I know not all Jewish, or Orthodox, schools have this focus, but I'm troubled by the idea that there are those that do. And that is exactly why, while I might be good at helping students in such schools who don't fit in, it doesn't seem like the administration would want me helping them. And why I am not so interested in working in one.

I certainly hope this is not the future of Orthodox Judaism.


  • Oy.

    By Blogger Erachet, at 8/14/08, 8:30 PM  

  • ...Wow. Speechless.

    Gotta admire his honesty.

    By Blogger Ezzie, at 8/14/08, 10:36 PM  

  • Um, Ezzie, HER honesty. Yes, women can be principals also :P

    By Blogger Shoshana, at 8/14/08, 10:44 PM  

  • I found this via someone else's website.
    let's talk.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/14/08, 11:37 PM  

  • i can understand now why you wouldn't necessary feel comfortable working at a school like that.

    and i do feel sorry for kids who are sent there that simply 'don't fit' due to their personality/creativity/flair/interests etc.

    By Blogger ~ Sarah ~, at 8/15/08, 2:27 AM  

  • I wonder if the principal was talking just about trying to have the students all dress the same. I don't think an intelligent principal would be so far out of touch as to not realize that saying they want coookie cutter students would be badly received.

    By Anonymous lawyerjoe, at 8/15/08, 5:15 AM  

  • I'm not totally floored that this occurred; even "out of town" BY's have dress codes for their teachers, but did the principal really say "cookie cutter"? Did she mean mode of dress like lawyerjoe suggested? I am surprised that a principal would actually want all her students to be the exact same. I very much hope this is not the future of Orthodoxy. But I think that every community, and every school, is different.
    And you would be so underutilized in a BY school, I hope you find a job worthy of you and your terrific skills very soon!

    By Blogger SaraK, at 8/15/08, 11:01 AM  

  • I can understand the fact that a principal might want a teacher to dress less like a "hot Chanie" type. That's understandable. The cookie cutter thing is a problem. As a product of BY schools I know exactly what you're talking about.

    By Blogger M, at 8/16/08, 10:35 PM  

  • Wow, are pple really shocked that a chareidi principal wants to produce cookie cutter children? That's the whole goal of charedi education- indoctrinate children to believe in charedi societal norms. Critical thinking, creativity, innovation are most definitely NOT charedi value- and when these values are taught/ encouraged, how many students could honestly remain in such a restrictive society by choice?

    Why is this a surprise to people? The principal was not talking about dress. She was talking about modes of thinking and learning which this apparently dedicated and creative teacher was encouraging in her students, which concerned the principal. Which is what makes this vignette so shocking and upsetting to anyone who respects children's individuality.

    By Blogger Commenter Abbi, at 8/17/08, 2:56 AM  

  • There was a time - in theory - when 'chanuch la'anar al pi daro' - teach a student according to his way, was a strong Jewish value.

    Now, with the explosive growth of orthodox society (high birth rate and bt's), and the growing pains that go along with that, every school is full and can expect 4% more growth every single year. Like any business with very high growth, surviving "as you are" and not slipping into chaos is a primary goal.

    Schools become less creative and more rigid to 'keep the standard' with less supervision and a bigger population.

    Sadly, not every child is going to function well in such a structure. Whether a gifted child who absorbs too fast and becomes bored, a creative child who wants to wander their own path, a very active child with less focus and more energy, they will be hurt by such a system and in many cases fall away (G-d forbid).

    But hey, that's ok, they're growing 4% a year! If 5% are lost over a few years, they're seats are already claimed.

    Your story is not surprising in the least, I've had several CHILDREN go through it.

    By Blogger Akiva, at 8/17/08, 4:08 AM  

  • Sigh...I'm not surprised, but I am depressed.

    This, my friends, is precisely why I want to go into Jewish education...G-d help me.

    By Anonymous scraps, at 8/17/08, 5:27 AM  

  • Scraps, we wish you the best of luck. We can expect you to be the savior of the next generation!

    By Blogger M, at 8/17/08, 9:23 AM  

  • I sure hope that's not the only school in town.

    By Blogger therapydoc, at 8/17/08, 8:25 PM  

  • most important part of the 'story' is missing...

    "...at which point my friend responded..."

    By Blogger G, at 8/18/08, 8:56 AM  

  • The problem here is that someone like you could probably contribute a lot to the girls in the BY system, but the leaders of it might not welcome your contributions. Is it possible for you to get involved unofficially?

    By Blogger StillinShidduchim, at 8/18/08, 3:44 PM  

  • LawyerJoe -
    I think the uniforms that the girls wear pretty much ensure that they LOOK like cookie cutters.

    SaraK -
    She did use the words "cookie cutter" and the implication she gave was that if a teacher did not conform to that mode of dress, then the students would have difficulty respecting them.

    Scraps -
    Good luck.

    G -
    My friend is still deciding whether she will be working in the school this year.

    SIS -
    Possibly in some capacity. We'll see :)

    By Blogger Shoshana, at 8/19/08, 9:29 AM  

  • I would be curious to know what she 'said' at the time in response as well as what her actions will be if she decides to stay on.

    By Blogger G, at 8/19/08, 10:40 AM  

  • I'm one of the anonymous posters who said to take a BY (or similarly low paying, yet experience yielding) job in a previous comment train.

    Hey, BY isn't perfect. There's an ideology you aren't in harmony with and the low pay, but then again, it's respectable work, you'd be working in the field you got your MA in, and it would strengthen your resume. My point was really not to endorse BY itself, just to endorse the notion of working a year at low pay in a private school to hopefully launch a career in the higher paying public sector.

    Anyway, it SUCKS that private school teachers and staff aren't paid better. Though I'm a staunch liberal, I question why we have an order that tries to force everyone into government-run schools.

    Yeah, BY tries to make its alumnae cookie molds, but we have a cookie mold public school system too. Seeing kids go from period to period at a huge public high school isn't that different from seeing a product go from machine to machine at a factory.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/20/08, 4:12 PM  

  • It's the fact that certain kids don't fit in in our education factories that guidance counselors exist!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8/20/08, 4:15 PM  

  • G -
    I am not sure what her initial response was. She is still trying to decide what to do and will hopefully do so in the next couple days.

    Anon (and you're not as anonymous as you probably think you are) -
    I said absolutely nothing about the financial aspect in this post. The fact that a position is completely against my ideology, however, would be a huge barrier to doing what I would consider respectable work. THAT is a huge problem.

    By Blogger Shoshana, at 8/20/08, 4:24 PM  

  • I agree that this is horrible and not the kind of environment you want to make a career in.... But...

    If the problem with your getting a job in your chosen field is a lack of practical experience, sometimes you have to put up with a lot of bs and, yes, sometimes even moral compromises in order to get that experience. It really boils down to a) how big a barrier lack of experience is to getting resume-building work, b) is there another (less compromising) way, and c) how badly you want to work in this field.

    A lot of people (myself included) put up with a lot of horrible jobs that could be used as stepping stones to get us into jobs we wanted. There were several times where people said that I should have sued the employer because of things that were going on, but in the end I needed the experience more. The end result is that I eventually ended up with a job I love in the field of my choice.

    That may not be the right solution for you, but the trade offs were worth it for me. I had to rent a room in someone else's house because the pay was lousy and I had to put up with illegal working conditions but, in the end, I got the career I wanted and was able to put moral compromises, poor pay, and being taken advantage of in the short term behind me.

    By Blogger Ahuva, at 8/27/08, 12:32 PM  

  • I know I'm about 4 months late to this thread, but I'm interested to know which school this was. It is not the first & wont be the last BY to say this to a teacher of theirs. I know of another school (or maybe its the same one) who basically said the same to their staff.

    By Blogger Karl, at 12/18/08, 7:01 PM  

  • Hi, I just read this post!
    Not knowing your friend or the school, just a few comments: Given that it is a BY school, although the principal's comment was coarsely stated, like another poster said, it is not surprising. A large part of the education in frum schools is the role modeling, as well as (hopefully) the skill of the teacher. It won't matter how great a teacher is, if she is projecting an image that is antithetical to what they perceive a good Jewish religious girl to be, she won't have a future there, and the school will be justified, as it is trying to produce a certain kind of girl. Someone who projects an image of "Hot Chanie" strikes me as someone who understands the letter, but not the spirit, of the laws of tznius. We all know people like this, and the Torah speaks of someone who can follow all the laws but still not be doing the right thing.

    Now, all I know about your friend is your description. She seems like she has a lot to offer, but if she is not willing to conform to an employer's standards then I don't see how she will have the opportunity to have an impact on these girls. Like any employer (think corporation or Wall St.) there may be certain unpleasant dress standards (suits, ties for men, etc) but everyone understands that these are non-negotiable bec. they want to present a certain image. Same w. BY.

    Having said all that, I think the principal was crass and ignorant for saying they sought to produce cookie cutter children. It just shows how she doesn't really understand the nuances of balancing chanoch le naar, with setting standards in tzniyus.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12/25/08, 8:49 AM  

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