Be an Educator. Build Self-Esteem, Morality and Character

As our village reels from the effects of this past pandemic year, mental health challenges and suicides are tragically on the rise. We can make a difference by placing greater focus on building self-esteem, morality and character.

Self-esteem has been given different faces over time. Some see it as ego, other's paint it up as pride. But really, self-esteem is closest to self-respect - confidence in one's own worth or abilities. And it's not something regularly taught in schools. This is because many believe that self-esteem, character and morality are values one learns on their own. After all, the focus of education is academics: subjects, tests, marks and right answers. And facing limited time and budgetary constraints, schools typically focus on ensuring their students pass their standardized tests.

But as the alarming rise in self-harm and suicide shows, teaching self-esteem, character and morality cannot be looked upon as "extra." It's essential.

Teachers take one of the most formative roles in a child's life, and when they focus on and encourage self-esteem and character-building in their students it can have a profound positive effect on the students' lives. Yes, low self-esteem may not affect their academic performance, but it certainly can and does affect their very lives.

My grandfather, Mr. Frank (Efrayim) Moscowitz was a teacher and then a principal in Chicago Public Schools for decades. He was guided in this career by the Rebbe - Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory - who advised him to continue his career as the principal of a school in a high-crime neighborhood. As my grandfather related, "I knew that the Rebbe cared very much about deprived children. At one point he had sent me a three-page educational mandate - which wasn't just for me, but for all educators - where he stressed that teachers had to be very, very sensitive to the needs of their students. One of the things that was so devastating to students in poor neighborhoods or students from broken families was lack of self-esteem. And many members of my faculty would not be sensitive to this ... So one of the key themes that the Rebbe had tried to get across to educators was that every child has potential, and many times it's unrealized because teachers, instead of being helpers, are actually obstacles and not facilitators."

Of course, too much of a good thing isn't always a good thing. Self-esteem is incredibly important. And it's just as important for our education systems to know that and teach accordingly. This idea shouldn't be taken to encourage a "reward for showing up" attitude, or the praising of little-to-no energy or effort. That type of approach can breed ego and narcissism, and won't develop the same results a healthy self-esteem can and will. And self-esteem should not translate to selfishness, but instead, to a greater sense of caring for others.

As the Rebbe said, every child has potential. Teachers have the immense opportunity to help develop it. By teaching a child moral values and focusing on character-building and creating healthy self-esteem, teachers can change their students' lives for the better.

And we are all teachers. We all can impact our surroundings.

March 24, was proclaimed by President Joe Biden as Education and Sharing Day. Annually, this day - which has been proclaimed by every president since Jimmy Carter - honors the Rebbe, who stood at the forefront of promoting moral and ethical education. The national proclamation is annually joined by proclamations from states and cities across the country, emphasizing education that focuses on building character and morality.

As Gov. J.B. Pritzker stated in his proclamation, "The Rebbe taught that education, in general, should not be limited to the acquisition of knowledge and preparation for a career, nor should its sole focus be on making a better living," but that "The educational system must also focus on building character by emphasizing the cultivation of universal moral and ethical values."

And as Northbrook President Sandy Frum stated in her proclamation, "The character of our young people is strengthened by serving a cause greater than self and by the anchor of virtues, including courage and compassion." A sense of self-respect balanced by the humility to share with others can do so much good for our children.

As Frum concluded in her proclamation, "By instilling a spirit of service in our children, we create a more optimistic future for them and for our village."

• Rabbi Meir Moscowitz is the regional director of Lubavitch Chabad of Illinois and senior rabbi of Chabad of Northbrook

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