Teacher Collaboration to Improve Value Proposition
The following emails arrived in my inbox soon after the opening of a school where I had assumed the headship.
Hi, Rabbi. I’m writing to tell you that my child will be arriving late to school tomorrow because of a scheduled medical appointment. I’m sure it won’t be too much of a problem since these are Jewish studies periods. Also, would you please speak with your Jewish studies teachers to ask that they lighten the homework load for the next few weeks? My child is in a play at the local drama club and won’t have time for Jewish studies homework.
Shalom, Rabbi. I am writing to tell you that after much consideration and your continued conversations with us, we will not be enrolling our children in a Jewish high school. The cost of tuition has just gone beyond our ability to pay. Besides, our local public school has a very high rate of acceptances to prestigious colleges. We plan to provide one or two hours per week of Hebrew tutoring to keep up the Jewish studies.
In the days and months that followed, similarly themed notes arrived. Although this was a school that took pride in offering a dual curriculum and boasted of its excellence, it soon became clear that to segments of the school’s population, the school’s Jewish studies took second place in the academic race to graduation.
Inequality in Perceived Value
To be true to the school’s mission, all of the school’s offerings—curricular, extracurricular, sports and informal experiences—must be seen as significantly contributing to its value proposition. To accomplish this, there must be a common language as an expression of the unity of purpose. For me, this is demonstrated through skill development across the curriculum.
Whether by design or default, Jewish day schools are viewed as having two divisions that provide two separate products. They have two faculties, one whose expertise and experience is designated for Jewish studies and one where the professional knowledge and proficiency is in general studies. In some schools, this separation is embedded in different salary scales, workplace expectations and licensure. In others this distinction is exhibited by title—Rebbe or Morah rather than Mr. or Ms.
The separation is most noticeable in the curriculum. Most significantly, general studies teachers have government created course outlines to follow and benchmarks to be met through standardized testing and are concerned with developing skills for matriculation—elementary to high school, high school to college. Jewish studies teachers aim to transmit and instill the values and culture of Judaism through the courses that they teach, with the goal of creating a Jewish bond for their students. In these situations there is no common language to unite the faculty and present to the school community a unified educational approach.
The effect of this bifurcated faculty is that each group pursues its own agenda. For their part, students can compartmentalize their learning. It is not uncommon for students to learn to provide significantly different responses to the same question, one to satisfy their Jewish studies teacher and one which the general studies teacher will find acceptable. (They might also have different responses for their sports coach or the faculty advisor for their favorite club.) The cognitive dissonance that this can produce has a destructive potential. When there is a need for students and parents to prioritize, general studies is often favored. The not-so-subtle message is that Jewish studies is less important. Taken to the extreme, when faced with rising tuition, parents can use this calculus to rationalize enrollment in public school.
This was the problem facing our school. The school’s value proposition as a place to fashion a wholesome Jewish person with excellent study and workplace skills was lost. Parents and students did not see Jewish and general studies on the same plane. The increasingly high cost of tuition became a reason to escape the system. Within the school community, Jewish studies teachers were increasingly pressured to sacrifice their expectations on the altar of general studies achievements. The result was reduced enrollment and a demoralized staff.
For me as a school leader, achieving the school’s goal of creating responsible Jewish citizens capable of being community leaders could only begin by unifying the staff. Increasingly, meetings of the entire staff were not productive, as there was not a clear understanding of mutually shared goals and objectives. Arranging social activities as a means of building an esprit de corps was challenging. During lunch, teachers of Jewish and general studies each gravitated to their own space. There was little sharing of information, with the result that homework, tests and project deadlines were not coordinated to balance the demands on students. Teacher evaluation was difficult because the perceived outcomes were different for Jewish and general studies teachers.
Forging Common Language
Creating a unified culture of faculty collaboration can signal the importance to all stakeholders of the unique opportunities afforded in Jewish day school. Values and content need not be separated. Every faculty member can be seen as modeling Jewish culture and values. This can be done only where there is a common language.
With the perception today that facts are “Google-able,” the instructional emphasis must be on skills. This can become the common language and is applicable across the curriculum.
Time management, critical thinking, organization, research, technology use are not inherently related to Jewish or general studies. One can learn about the majesty of the Creator in a science class and apply critical thinking skills to the study of a Jewish text. Time management is essential to manage a dual curriculum, and organization is necessary to participate in sports and extra curricular activities while maintaining attention to academic pursuits.
To begin the process, a small group of teachers representing different disciplines, four Jewish studies and four general studies, gathered to identify skills that were outcomes of their individual curricula. These teachers then met with their department colleagues to further identify the skills which were part of their course syllabi. Sample lesson plans with skill outcomes were developed and circulated.
At the next staff meeting, members of the small group presented skills-based lesson plans. The staff was then divided into five groups, one for each of the five identified skills: time management, critical thinking, organization, research, technology use. Each group was asked to produce two lessons, one for Jewish studies and one for general studies, using the designated skill. These were to be prepared during the next month, at which time the results would be shared with the larger group at the subsequent staff meeting. Faculty worked together using their lunch and prep periods.
Gradually, “skills” became the lingua franca, for faculty, students and parents. Announcement of this process was shared with parents, with regular updates on progress. A highlight of the first year was a compendium of student prepared divrei Torah to accompany the Haggadah on Seder night. In the introduction to the booklet, it was noted this was a multidisciplinary document incorporating the five skills that were being emphasized throughout the school. In the second year, a project-based learning model was introduced. Having a unified language of learning facilitated a multidisciplinary approach. We were also fortunate to have added two new members to the faculty who were capable of teaching on both sides of the curriculum and could model this skills based approach to learning.
At the next professional development day, faculty input was sought for the revised lesson plan format as well as the rubric for teacher evaluation, which was revised to place an emphasis on skill development. Teacher collaboration was becoming the school’s culture.
Marketing and fundraising materials were revised to place a common emphasis on skills. Parent ambassadors were trained to speak about the core values of the school, which transcend parochial divisions. The school’s value proposition was now much broader and appealed to a larger segment of the community. Enrollment increased. Teacher morale improved and absences decreased. Students became reluctant to allow medical appointments to be scheduled during class time for fear of missing out.
As part of the annual grant proposal to the local Federation, the emphasis on skills was emphasized. One of the members of the grant committee known for being skeptical of the value of a Jewish day school education became a vocal supporter of the allocation, saying, “Graduates of this school will have gained the necessary skills to be successful in the workplace, the home and the community.”
As Victor Adler (Austrian politician, 1852-1918) noted, “If I can answer the question of ‘What for?’ the ‘how’ becomes possible.” Creating a “whole person” approach to learning is the “what for.” Faculty collaboration using a common language of instruction is the “how.”