Role Models, Please

Role Models, Please

Everything Depends on the Teacher

Headlines and photos these days are too terrible for my eyes, let alone the eyes of young children. Popular culture sends the wrong messages to our children everywhere they turn. Magazine, television, and Internet headlines read “Teen Mom Pregnant Again” and “Young Star Back in Jail.”

In a media-saturated world, children are receiving the message that the road to happiness lies in notoriety and acquiring trendy products. This contradicts what older folk know intuitively and what a multitude of research studies now confirm: that the road to happiness is, in fact, through learning to build healthy relationships and to make positive informed choices.[1]

Somehow, to ensure our children thrive intellectually, socially, and emotionally, we must counteract the cultural icons that complicate our children’s minds with models of violence, sex, and drugs. It’s no longer a matter of “just turning the page.” The modelling pervades our society. Parents have to take positive steps and push back.

Research also reveals the power that role models hold for children and teens.[2] They are diligent observers, always watching and listening to what the adults around them do and say. By definition, a role model is a person whose behaviour is observed and imitated by others. So, who are our children’s role models?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had this to say about the teacher:

Everything depends on the person who stands in front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. The teacher is either a witness or a stranger. To guide the pupil into the Promised Land, he or she must have been there… When asking herself: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? The teacher must be able to answer in the affirmative.

What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but text people. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget t.[3]

In the classroom, students watch their teacher interact with others all day long. As such, the teacher must demonstrate those characteristics and behaviours we want our children to emulate. Teachers must exemplify positive problem-solving, respectful behaviour, perseverance, and tolerance.

For instance, when a teacher is just about to show the class a video and the technology fails, how does the role model in front of the class react? Does he demonstrate talking through a problem? Does she acknowledge a mistake, take responsibility, and move to make amends? Does he weigh the pros and cons of various options and think flexibly before coming to a decision? Hopefully, yes to all of the above, because these are the skills needed for good decision-making, and because the teacher’s behaviour in the moment is what the children will echo when they face similar situations.

Selecting teachers who are positive role models is a challenge in school hiring practices. It is so important to watch a teacher candidate interact with students both formally and informally, and beyond pedagogy, to discuss the candidate’s understanding of child development and role-modelling. These considerations should be embedded in the school’s ongoing critical assessment and supervision of the teachers it hires.

Supervisors should ask: Is the teacher authentic and comfortable with who she is? Does he appear happy and at ease at school? Is she proud of her Jewish identity and happy to celebrate it? Is he knowledgeable and passionate about his work?  Are students flourishing in her class? The answers to these questions continuously transmit potent messages to the students, both verbally and non-verbally.

A good teacher role-models compassion and collaboration to a variety of ends. The teacher mindfully intends to connect with each student and to understand each student’s learning style so that lessons optimize each child’s chance to learn. The relationship may proceed from finding out a student’s extracurricular interests or chatting with the child at recess. Empathy grounds the all-important teacher–student relationships. It is also foundational to teaching ethics, respect, and self-discipline. Students have to see and feel their teachers care.

Our Jewish sages understood the critical importance of the teacher as the person responsible for imparting our ethics, values, knowledge, and understanding to our children on a daily basis. They understood the importance of providing even our youngest students with a framework for living.  In the discussions that still ensue on the causes of the riots in England this past summer, one common thread has been identified: the sense of aimlessness and despair experienced by youths in those communities. They were not raised in a framework of positive social values, nor with a sense of hope or purpose… Our teachers are taught to view each child as B’zelem Elokim (in the image of God). Imagine the attitude and atmosphere this automatically creates. Each student, each child, is created in God’s image and is therefore holy. No one more, and no one less. From this awesome beginning, the teachers can begin their work. When children feel respected and honoured for just being themselves, they are more able to relax and they are more receptive to learning.

Teachers who pay attention to the emotional lives of their students are often those who see the most academic growth in their classes. The mental state of “relaxed alertness” is optimum for learning; the same part of the brain that controls emotion governs memory. We all best remember things that had an emotional component.  Some remember precisely how Team Canada won Gold in the Vancouver Olympics. In school we want to associate learning with emotions of joy and curiosity. Not only will it make the learning more meaningful, it will make it last longer.

Good role models raise school standards. When teachers create positive and respectful relationships with their students, they institute high-functioning classrooms where students are ready to learn. When students trust and admire their teachers, they stretch themselves academically and they reach for excellence.

This article was originally published in THINK Issue 10, Fall 2011.

[1] Nancy Carlsson-Paige, ed., Taking Back Childhood (New York: Hudson Street Press, 2008); Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009).

[2] See, for example, Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (San Fransicso: Jossey Bass, 2007); and “Powerful Words,” Dr. Robyn J.A. Silverman’s Powerful Parenting Blog,

[3] Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology of Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Samuel H. Dresner (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1983)

Gail is one of the co-founders of the Toronto Heschel School and was the Head of School from 2001 to 2014. In 2003 she co-founded the Lola Stein Institute and in the past has served as the Director of the institute and the Learning Community Director. Gail has a MEd in Curriculum Development from OISE at the University of Toronto, and a certificate in special education and dramatic arts from the Ministry of Education.

Gail has extensive professional experience in various educational settings. She is currently co-directing the Intergenerational Classroom, a program where students from the Toronto Heschel School and elders from the Terraces at Baycrest learn together. She was the head of the Principal’s Association of Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education from 2009-2011.

Gail has written extensively about education. She is currently a columnist for think magazine, reviewing “Good Books”. Her previous column was Teaching Teaching. Gail co-authored a book with Otto Baruch Rand entitled, “Ancient Civilizations”, which integrates Jewish history with world history. In 2011 she co-authored with Judith Leitner and Pam Medjuck Stein an article published in the Lookstein Center’s Jewish Educational Leadership journal entitled, “Transformative Jewish Education through the Arts”.

Gail has been a presenter in various settings in Toronto and in North American conferences. She continues to be involved in the Lola Stein Institute and THINK magazine.


Special Feature

Everything Depends on the Teacher
Role Models, Please
Using Academic Disciplines to Teach Children How to Think
Education for the Next Generation
Double Commitment to the Individuality and Jewish Identity of Each Child
A Sustained Vision
Why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is Our Inspiration
A Thoughtful Jewish School

Our Sages Tell Us


The Lola Stein Institute (LSI) is a centre of inventive educational thinking and addresses the challenge to re-frame schooling for the exigencies of our times.