21 Sivan 5774
In The Book of Jewish Values, Rabbi Telushkin gives us a full year of Jewish values to consider throughout the year – one per day. Telushkin’s plan is that each week’s worth of values can and should form the discussion topics on Shabbat for that week.
I will not be discussing each and every value in this blog, but I find that a third of the way through the book, many of them are tugging at me to write about my own experiences and expectations of them. Today, I’m going to write about kindness.
The Day 4 topic is titled “What Would God Want Me To Do?” According to Telushkin, the value of charity – one of the most important values in Jewish thought and practice – is still superseded by the value of kindness. Kindness can take many different forms, from spending time with a sick neighbor to helping someone carry a load that is too heavy for them, even if doing so might inconvenience us. One might think of kindness as “the charity of our time,” because kindness may take no money but significant time.
In my experience, I have not always been kind to others. I have a tendency to get irritated with people who argue with me, or who insist on small changes to something I’ve already completed. Students who grade-grub for an extra point or two, or for an increase in their grade, are a special pet peeve of mine.
This ties in with a second value that Telushkin talks about on Day 33, from the Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5, that states, in effect, “the lesson to be learned from G-d having started humanity with Adam, a single human being, is that each person represents a whole world, and each individual possesses infinite value” (Telushkin, p. 48). In this lesson, Telushkin points out that every profession gives its practitioners the opportunity to treat others like those who have infinite value. As a teacher, I have the opportunity every day to do this, and I admit that in the morass of grading and planning, I often forget that students are real people who may not give me their best, or who try but do not achieve what’s expected. But these students can still be crushed if I do not acknowledge their hard work even if they miss the mark. And this is something I need to work on.
How to work on it comes from a different source: Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown. Dr. Brown holds a Ph.D. in social work and has done extensive research on the issue of shame – and how to deal with it. One of the things Brown talks about in this book is that when you’re giving feedback to people (something teachers have to do all the time), you need to meet others as equals instead of pulling rank. This sounds, to me, very similar to the value of finding infinite value in others that Telushkin discusses in Day 33. It also means making myself vulnerable to the person to whom I’m giving feedback. Fortunately, Brown provides several ways to accomplish this in her book.
First, she says to give the person whom you have to critique three strengths about what they did, and one opportunity to improve it (Brown, p. 200). I’m thinking of a student last semester who wrote a passionate paper about a topic that was obviously near and dear to their heart. The paper had multiple problems, but the passion the writer had for the topic was very clear. That would be one of the strengths I would emphasize in any future conversations about this paper. The opportunity – how to improve – would be along the lines of “Remember that you are supporting an argument, not just giving an historical record of this topic,” and then some positive steps to take to accomplish that opportunity.
I plan to incorporate this feedback into any future paper feedback that I give to my students, especially my online students.
The second technique that Brown recommends is what she calls “giving engaged feedback” (brown, p. 202-204). This ties in with the kindness issue in Telushkin’s Day 4 topic. The steps in giving engaged feedback include sitting next to, rather than across from, the person whom you’re giving feedback to; putting the problem in front of us both; listening, asking questions, and accepting that I might not fully get what the issue really is; acknowledging what worked instead of picking apart errors; recognizing strengths and how they can be used to address problems; holding the other person accountable without shaming or blaming; owning my part of the problem; thanking them for their efforts rather than criticizing them for their failings; talking to them about how these changes will lead to growth and opportunity; and finally, modeling the vulnerability and openness that I expect to see from them (Brown, p. 203).
This only works well in an in-person situation, but I’m looking already for ways to adapt this to an e-mail or online interaction, and see how close I can get to the same effects when my student cannot come to office hours.
Brown also warns: “[I]f I feel self-righteous, it means I’m afraid […] of being wrong, making someone angry, or getting blamed” (Brown, p. 202). And G-d knows that I’ve felt plenty self-righteous when grading my students. Part of that self-righteousness expresses itself as exasperation, part as impatience, and part as anger that they apparently didn’t listen. But none of that lets me off the hook of being kind in the feedback I give, even as I have to be honest. Honesty doesn’t include sarcasm or sharp words.
Which brings us back to Telushkin and these two Jewish values of kindness and professional courtesy towards others. One of the things that makes us pull away from kindness is the fear of making ourselves vulnerable to the person we’re being kind to, no matter what form that kindness takes. A teacher not picking a paper apart for its errors risks being seen as a softy or a pushover; a person who helps their roommate out of a financial jam risks being seen as a soft touch. But kindness is, in part, always a risk. And G-d requires us to do it anyway. G-d requires us to be vulnerable when performing this mitzvah.