Discipline and Tshuvah in the Middle School

Jody Passanisi

“How would you handle discipline in our middle school if you were the director?”

It was my interview for Director of Middle School at Hausner in the Spring of 2017, and I was waiting for this question. I’d thought about it a great deal, actually, before the student on the student interview panel even asked me. I was ready to talk about how I believe that discipline in middle school is strongly connected to our Jewish tradition of tshuvah—the process of repentance for errors made. 


Mistakes Open the Door for Positive Change and Learning

One thing that I love about middle school is that mistakes are expected. And not just expected, but necessary for learning. In some ways, this can be why middle school feels so challenging for students (and parents, and sometimes teachers, too): kids are growing intellectually, physically, and emotionally at the most rapid pace since they were toddlers. There are going to be some missteps in this process- life with its changes just unfolds too quickly to avoid them.  

But responding to these expected mistakes is what we do well at Hausner’s Middle School. Because it’s often in the mistake that the learning happens. Leonard Cohen says, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” That light is tshuvah—a process that both requires and builds the skills of self-reflection, perspective taking, taking responsibility for the self, others, and the community, and conflict resolution. 


Tradition Guides us in the Present

Tshuvah, the step-by-step process of repair/repentance for errors, requires an individual to take responsibility, to identify how to repair and apologize—and to not err in the same way again. Most of us think of these steps-- if we think of them at all—as confined to the time before and on Yom Kippur. But this process is an important part of the core discipline of our middle school all year round. 

Our goal with discipline is ALWAYS to support those who have been wronged, to seek justice and repair, and, also as important, to help the individual who erred to do the work of reflection, repair, apology, and goal-setting that will help them to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

This process is often private, compassionate, and one that is between a student and another student or even a student and a teacher. Many times the community will not notice that this process has happened, in order to give dignity to all parties involved. 


The Intrinsic Work of Reflection

Like anything else, discipline has extrinsic and intrinsic pieces to it. We believe in middle school that we need to help our students develop the intrinsic motivation to do tshuvah when they’ve erred or missed the mark in some way. Each of our students are good human beings and we know that even good human beings make mistakes. It is how we handle ourselves, take responsibility, and do the hard work of repair after those mistakes that really challenges us to show who we really are on the inside. 


Darchei Hausner Values as a Grounding Presence and Compass

Hausner students leave our middle school with a strong sense of arevut (community responsibility), anavah (humility), and kavod (respect). These are the pillars of our Darchei Hausner—our “Way of Hausner,” that helps guide the students in their decisions, their words, their actions, and the process of tshuvah when they miss the mark. Because often the process is what lets the light in and transforms our students, bit by bit, into the people they want to be.

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