Investing in Our Congregational Education Teachers

Posted on 05/27/2022 @ 06:00 AM

Tags: Jewish Schools & Educational Services

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

If you’ve been reading our previous articles this year, you are well aware of the Jewish teacher shortage, both in the day school and early childhood education sectors. The same is true in the congregational education (CE) sector, commonly known as religious school, Hebrew school, Sunday school, among other names. 
The difference is that this teacher shortage is not just a recent phenomenon, but is endemic to the very nature of Congregational Education. Most teachers need and/or want full-time teaching positions, which CE is not. 
And many qualified Judaic/Hebrew teachers who work full-time, are not interested in or motivated to work extra hours in the late afternoon mid-week or on the weekend at morning sessions after a full week of teaching. 
So where do we find teachers for CE settings and how can we help train them?
Our recent survey of the current CE directors found that they all find their teachers primarily from word of mouth and networking. They ask their current teachers if they know prospective teachers; they ask their colleagues, congregants and friends.  
When they finally find a teacher, that person is often not credentialed or professional. Therefore, s/he/they need to be guided through teaching basics, like lesson planning, classroom management and nowadays, hybrid teaching tools.
Imagine training a new hire for a job being done only once or twice a week. And think of the skills good teachers need:
  • organization and attention to detail (think of all the materials needed for a single lesson, with it's many learning activities),
  • people skills and responding to children’s and teen’s needs,
  • clear and dynamic communication,
  • relating to parents in addition to the children,
  • knowing the content one is teaching, and so much more.
We, at CAJE, recognized this challenge and sought a way to partner with our CE schools to make a difference in training the next generation of teachers. 
We created the Better Teacher Better Lesson pilot program in order to see if personalized professional development (PD) and training would benefit these avocational and newer teachers. 
CAJE called upon the expertise of the company, BetterLesson, which offers high quality PD for teachers through focused group workshops, curated resources, and teaching tools that work whether teaching and learning virtually or in person. 
Better Lesson also uses a strategy that research shows really impacts how teachers teach, and thus how learners learn—namely, professional coaching
Five teachers from four congregational education programs -- Aventura Turnberry Jewish CenterBeth Torah Benny Rok CampusTemple Beth Am and Temple Beth Sholom -- participated in this first Better Teacher Better Lesson pilot program. 
The teachers participated in 3 virtual workshops in which they learned basic components of pedagogy and explored teaching tools that work for all different types of learners. 
In between the workshops and throughout the spring semester, the teachers also had one on one meetings every two week with their own coaches to reflect on their teaching and set goals for implementing new ways of teaching and learning. 
As is the case in all of our CE programs, the teachers’ backgrounds were extremely varied: 2 were new to teaching in general and teaching in CE programs in particular, 1 was a Jewish educator with extensive experience in informal education working in youth group settings, and 2 teachers were professional Jewish educators who also work in Jewish day school settings.

Here’s what our teachers, Lilach Cazes, Batsheva Corneilson, Lucia Eixarch, Daniel Goldman, and Roger Rosenthal, had to say about their experience:
“A light bulb went off and I realized that even in CE settings, with limited time, we can do project-based learning. I marveled at how much my first graders understood and retained when they did their own research!
“I learned how important “Glow & Grow” is for me. I excel more as a teacher when I reflect on my work and note how I am “glowing” through all the things I am doing well and how I can “grow” to become an even better teacher. I want to see my students “glow and grow” too and have begun to teach them how to reflect on their work.”
With coaching, there was more incentive and impetus to implement my learning right away. I had a partner to help me figure out the logistics, I could talk through the nervousness of trying something new and I looked forward to the next session when I could share and reflect on how it went.”
“Part of being a good teacher is constantly renewing yourself. Having a place to find great resources made it possible to continue teaching but in new and exciting ways for me and my students.”
“It’s teacher creativity that drives the motivation of the students. I was excited about trying new things and the students felt my enthusiasm and responded to the learning with more eagerness.

Joy Schandler, CAJE’s Director of Congregational Education and Congregational Education directors, Tamara Donnenfeld, Corinne Farkash Mizrahi, Dr. Gabriela Rascovsky and Barb Shimansky, are so appreciative of this community program, funded by the Greater Miami Jewish Federation’s Sharsheret allocation. 

Photo by Lavi Perchik on Unsplash

They have noticed how their teachers are enthusiastically incorporating their learning into their classroom environments and how this has made the students’ experience even better.   
At the last Congregational Education Professional Network (CEPN) meeting of the year, because of the great success they are observing, the directors agreed to establish a second cohort of teachers participating in the Better Teacher Better Lesson pilot program in the coming school year. 
And we are considering creating a new goal for the program- developing teacher leaders who are trained to coach new teachers so new teachers have an “in-house” coach who can help them through the difficult first years in the classroom.
Don’t let anyone tell you that Hebrew school is “a lost cause.” In Miami, our school leaders are dedicated to relentless improvement, our teachers are working on continuous growth, and our students are seeing the benefits!