Got Ya, Caught Ya Being a Mensch

Melissa Michaelson June 17, 2024

An inner compass lies within all of us. This compass guides our life’s directions and is the voice of our decision-making. Our inner compass motivates us to do what’s right; it is the navigator of our mind, heart, and soul.

At Hillel, our mission, Jewish core values, and motto help mold the inner compass of our students. We strive to build an environment that teaches each child to make respectful, authentic, and compassionate decisions, even when no one is watching. By providing this foundation, we help strengthen each child’s intrinsic motivation, pushing them to make choices because of an internal feeling of fulfillment, confidence, and happiness. This feeling and sense of accomplishment is the reward. 

For almost two decades, Hillel Day School has awarded students with MENSCH cards.  When students were caught “being a mensch” or, in other words, acting in a kind way, they were given a MENSCH card. At the end of the week, all the MENSCH cards were put into a container and eight to ten student names were pulled and each was given a candy reward. While this tradition was an anticipated and exciting part of our Friday afternoon for some students, it was important that we finally asked ourselves, “Do we want our students to follow our expectations of being a good human because they get a MENSCH card or because it’s what we believe all our students should do? Have we considered the students who follow expectations on a consistent basis and are not given a MENSCH card? What about the students who are caught being kind but later that day decide to make choices that don't follow our motto, yet their MENSCH card gets pulled at the end of the week?”

After pondering these questions, we came to the conclusion that we will no longer give MENSCH cards at Hillel Day School. We want our students to possess the intrinsic motivation to do what’s right versus receiving external validation. Asking a peer to play during recess, holding the door for a teacher, or cleaning up a mess are not only expectations of a Hillel student, but also actions that expand one’s inner compass. We want our students to continue to make valued decisions because it feels good inward - not because of an external reward.

Children’s kind actions still need to be recognized. As a Responsive Classroom school, giving non-judgmental praise is our approach. Non-judgmental praise describes a specific observation of what transpired rather than using an adjective. For example, instead of stating, “Your painting is beautiful!”, state facts enthusiastically, “I see that you drew a garden of different colored flowers with a yellow sun.” Contrary to phrases such as “good job” or “that was amazing,” which tend to foster a growing dependence on praise or can cause dissonance if the receiver does not agree, non-judgmental feedback provides specific, observable statements that acknowledge, validate, and celebrate a child’s actions, giving them skills to regulate their future behaviors.

As educators, parents, and guardians, we need to think about how we are rewarding our students and children. Is the system in which we follow one that will help encourage intrinsic motivation and build upon the values in which we hope to instill? Is our feedback authentic and specific rather than judgmental? How is our guidance providing direction to the road of confidence, a growth mindset, grit, and the inner compass to do what’s right?

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Melissa Michaelson

Melissa Michaelson is the Principal of Hillel Day School.