As a student at Westchester Day School in the 1980s, learning Hebrew was simply part of my educational experience, no different than math or science. My school had several excellent educators who made sure I would become proficient in the language, utilizing my skills in the classroom, as a bar mitzvah and when visiting Israel. My cousins and I would compete at holidays to prove who could maintain a Hebrew-only conversation the longest. Most of my Hebrew teachers happened to be Israeli, and while I didn’t always enjoy their rigorous and structured approach, I grew as a learner, as a Jew.
At Milwaukee Jewish Day School (MJDS), where I serve as head of school, Hebrew is required in every grade, 3K-8th. Over the last few years, we’ve focused on creating and implementing a scope and sequence backward mapped from graduation. We are attempting to align our curriculum to the ACTFL world readiness language standards; our teachers engage students in reading, writing, speaking and listening each day. We are improving in our capacity to meet the individual needs of all students, and the growth of our school over the last five years complicates our attempts at differentiation. Most lateral transfers are new to Hebrew, requiring additional high-quality Hebrew teachers to provide ability-level courses. Offering a virtual learning environment to support differentiated instruction is only effective if the educator in the room is able to build authentic relationships with students.
A lot has changed since the 1980s. Recruiting and retaining high-quality Hebrew teachers has become a significant challenge for many day schools across the country. For many second-language learners, the key to growth is stepping outside of one’s comfort zone and speaking/hearing that new language as often as possible. Creating a classroom environment that allows students to feel safely vulnerable is an essential component of strong teaching. If we want the current and future generations to value modern Hebrew, we must create a sustainable pipeline of educators who love the language, love children, and can foster learning environments that support speaking and listening along with reading and writing.
At MJDS, we are fortunate to have incredible Hebrew educators on staff. Unfortunately, two of them will return to Israel in the near future, a reality we have been preparing for by researching how other day schools meet their families’ Hebrew education needs. In our discussions with more than twenty-five day schools, we’ve learned the following:
- Every school is providing some kind of Hebrew program, even if it is limited to a few grade levels.
- The majority of the Hebrew teachers today are 50+ and only 5% are under the age of 30; several teachers are nearing or at retirement age.
- Hebrew charter elementary schools are getting some of the strongest teachers; private day schools are often losing out.
- The most experienced teachers are in the high school programs because these programs have been around longer.
- The majority of Jewish day schools rely on people who are fluent Hebrew speakers, yet may not have any teaching experience.
- Outstanding Hebrew teachers do not need to be native speakers.
- Some schools are piloted virtual teachers/classrooms, with mixed results.
Recognizing that there is no simple solution to identifying, recruiting and retaining excellent Hebrew teachers, yet knowing that there are always ways forward, I connected with two incredible educators to help identify opportunities. Partnering with Vardit Ringvald, the director of the School of Hebrew at Middlebury College, and Yael Gal, a professor at UW-Milwaukee and the head of Hebrew at Nicolet High School in Milwaukee, we hosted more than a dozen day school leaders for an initial conversation last month.
Throughout our discussion of the Hebrew educator pipeline, a few themes emerged:
- The goal of Hebrew is not necessarily the same at everyday school.
- Identifying/recruiting/retaining high-quality Hebrew teachers is a struggle, especially for smaller schools in mid-size cities.
- The impact of educational shlichim varies significantly.
- Providing a realistic path for interested educators towards emigration from Israel to the US is costly and inconsistent.
- Proficiency in Hebrew varies tremendously among students. Some students have little to no ability to decode, whereas students who are native speakers speak and read fluently.
- This diversity requires teachers to be experts in differentiation.
Although our initial meeting has not yet determined how to create or sustain a pipeline of Hebrew educators, we did begin to build community around this common challenge. Vardit, Yael and I reflected on our initial meeting and agreed that more information would be needed before reconvening. To capture additional information, we are drafting a brief survey to be shared with all heads of school via the Prizmah reshet. We will use this information to identify next steps in our pipeline development.