By Elliot Goldberg
Are we doing all that we can to support the development of early childhood educators as teachers of the Jewish tradition? Previously, I’ve argued that the learning of rabbinics begins in Jewish early childhood education settings. Awareness of the place of rabbinics in the curriculum gives us an important new perspective about the education of our youngest learners. Strengthening our schools’ ability to use the rabbinic canon to deliver a strong Jewish experience requires additional steps.
I recently spent two days with the faculty of an early childhood center (ECC) embedded in a Jewish day school, as a part of the Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute of the Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The visit was part of a two-year initiative to strengthen the teaching and learning of rabbinics in the school. A portion of the visit focused on developing an approach for incorporating the learning of Mishnah Bava Kamma, chapter 3, which deals with an individual’s responsibility for damages caused by personal property in the public domain, into the students’ school experience.
As we studied together, the ECC faculty made connections between the Mishnah and themes that are a part of school life at the start of the school year, especially teaching values and routines about cleaning up at the end of an activity and putting away personal property. It was striking how many examples of case law from the Mishnah resonated with situations that arise in a school’s hallways and classrooms. Our conversation about the various pathways we could use to bring the rabbinic material that we had studied into the classroom (a topic about which I hope to share more in the future) generated excitement and enthusiasm.
As we worked, a teacher raised her hand and asked a wonderful and challenging question, “How will we find texts as we explore other topics later, when there is no one here to provide them for us?” Continue reading
By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
This post was originally published by The Wexner Foundation.
“Teachers cannot create and sustain the conditions for the productive development of children if those conditions do not exist for teachers,” wrote Seymour B. Sarason, Yale professor and psychologist. Sarason points out a truth that is self-evident to most teachers, and, upon reflection, applicable to all of us: We cannot teach what we are not actively engaged in. If we wish to develop our students with a curiosity, inquiry, and proclivity towards the critical thinking that propels learning, then we must provide teachers with the opportunity to be curious, inquire, and think critically.
Research shows that school contexts influence teachers’ career decisions and their effectiveness. From the mid-nineteen-seventies to the present, researchers have examined how the organizational contexts of schools support and constrain teachers and teaching. Based on extensive observations and interviews as well as large-scale surveys, a robust body of evidence challenges the belief that teachers’ career decisions and success are mainly related to the students they teach rather than the conditions under which they work.
We know, for example, that teachers who work in supportive schools stay longer and improve faster than teachers in less supportive schools. In supportive schools teachers can count on regular opportunities to collaborate with colleagues, receive feedback and instructional guidance from administrators, and experience an orderly school environment. This is especially true for beginning teachers who leave teaching at alarmingly high rates, often before they have a chance to grow into effective teachers. We know that principals play a critical role in creating these conditions.
So how do Jewish day schools stack up? Continue reading
Do we need to cultivate the inner spiritual life of our Jewish educators, as Aryeh Ben David claims? Certainly we do. But as Ziva Reimer Hassenfeld has argued in response, based on recent empirical research at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis, many teachers already bring a passion for Judaism to their teaching. Passion is not enough. What those teachers need, she continues, is “the professional development necessary to foster skilled, reflective practitioners.”
I agree with Ziva’s argument, but I’ve also been thinking recently about another aspect of the issue. Sometimes passion is not enough—but sometimes it is too much. When a teacher demonstrates passion, when a class seems to get drawn into a focus on the teacher’s persona, does that inevitably threaten the boundaries between teacher and student? Does it interfere with learning? Is it simply too dangerous? Continue reading
By Ziva R. Hassenfeld
Many believe that being a great Jewish educator is, above all, about being a passionate and spiritual Jew. But decades of education research have shown that good teachers are made, not born. Ultimately, an inspiring Jewish journey can only take an educator so far. The best Jewish educators need to have deep knowledge of how to teach as well.
Aryeh Bendavid recently argued that without the “white fire” of a teacher’s spiritual journey, the “black fire” of Jewish learning lacks intensity. This notion of teaching and Jewish studies teachers is what Jewish education scholar Alex Pomson called “the teacher as Rebbe, the oldest and most powerful archetype of Jewish teaching.” Bendavid concludes by arguing that professional development for Jewish educators should focus on cultivating their inner spiritual life.
But in research that I’ve conducted at the Mandel Center, I’ve found that Jewish studies teachers from across the Jewish educational landscape already place a high priority on their own spiritual life as a key factor for success as Jewish educators. One teacher told me, “Either you’re a teacher who’s living by this stuff, or, at the very least, you have some connection to this stuff. That’s why you’re teaching this.” He paused and concluded, “My passion for Judaism just innately comes through when I’m teaching.”
To be sure, powerful role models are a key ingredient for successful Jewish education. But being a good teacher requires much more. Continue reading