Painting a Teacher Portrait

Four years ago at the Shlenker School in Houston, we hired an experienced teacher to teach fifth grade math and science. Her teaching partner had been teaching at the school for almost twenty years; however, in recent years, she had become more and more unwilling to take direction from her supervisors. As the year unfolded, it became obvious that both teachers were failing to meet our expectations, and the following year, neither was a member of our staff.

During the summer, as the administrative team discussed what had happened, it became clear to us that while we had been explicit in stating certain pedagogical goals for both teachers, we had not done the same with other expectations such as participation in school events, communication with students, staff and parents, and so forth. We had failed to acculturate our new hire by not teaching her “the Shlenker way,” nor had we held our longstanding teacher accountable to those unstated standards of behavior.

To prevent a similar situation from occurring, we decided to involve our entire faculty in the process of describing a teacher’s professional responsibilities. The result was a deep and fruitful conversation between teachers and administrators, and a clear, concise document titled “Portrait of a Shlenker Teacher.” The document does not list specific duties of a teacher, as those duties will differ depending upon the teacher’s teaching assignment. However, it does capture the commitments the school makes to our students, their families and our community, as stated by its mission and core values.

At the first working meeting, teachers were divided into five random groups. The groups were asked to list their responsibilities toward five specific entities: their students, their students’ families, the school administration, the curriculum and each other. Each group was given a laptop. With each laptop, one person captured the group’s discussion.

After about fifteen minutes, the laptops were switched between groups. The second group was asked to add to the list that the previous group had started. However, this time, they were asked to consider the list through a different lens: namely, to consider their responsibilities specifically as a member of the faculty of our Reform Jewish day school. This process was repeated one more time, when teachers were asked to consider their responsibilities as a professional practitioner.

The five documents that were created were stored on the school’s shared on-line storage so they would be accessible to everyone. Teachers were invited to add statements or comment, but they were not allowed to change anyone’s words. At the next faculty meeting, teachers were regrouped and asked to edit the documents. Because this process was conducted separately with the elementary faculty and the early childhood faculty, the final step involving teachers was a “conference committee” with five representatives from each group. Pairs of teachers, one from each division, each edited one document.

After the individual documents were completed, they were combined into one document and edited by an administrator so that the entire document could be uniformly formatted, and so that the language and syntax of the document would be consistent throughout the portrait. The final step was review and approval by the administrative team during the past summer.

At the beginning of the current academic year, a close look at the completed document was an important part of our in-service week. In a joint faculty meeting led by the elementary principal, the early childhood principal and the director of Jewish learning, the process of developing the portrait were reviewed and the members of the “conference committee” that created a unified document were recognized. Then, in groups, staff members were asked to engage deeply with just one section of the portrait and present its contents to the larger group. The resulting presentations were creative, artistic, humorous and memorable. The entire staff, from office personnel to maintenance supervisor to head of school, left that final faculty meeting energized and excited by the sense of professional camaraderie engendered by the portrait they had created.

In addition to fomenting a thoughtful and often passionate discussion about the art of teaching, the process of developing the “Portrait of a Shlenker Teacher” and the resulting document have given supervisors new tools for hiring, supervising, mentoring and evaluating teachers. A teacher who is seeking a position at our school will now be able to understand our expectations, even before filling out an application. Those of us who hire can use the portrait as a guide when we seek references for prospective teachers.

Once hired, teachers are asked to set at least one personal professional goal based on the portrait. Part of our supervision will now include looking at that teacher’s goal and helping him/her take steps to accomplish it; year-end evaluation will include conversation about how successful the teacher has been meeting that professional challenge. Finally, if we are faced with the unfortunate but sometimes inevitable reality that a teacher has not met the professional responsibilities listed in our portrait, it can be used as a tool to justify the difficult decision of termination.

Throughout the process, our administrative team relied upon the work of the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education. Their Teacher Learning Project Toolkit served as an invaluable resource for us as we took our first step toward our own plan for teacher induction here at the Shlenker School.

Because each school has its own unique culture and history, the process with which our portrait was created will not be appropriate for all schools. However, the need for a clearly stated set of expectations is universal, as are the positive outcomes these expectations will bring. ♦

Nancy Pryzant Picus is the director of Jewish learning at the Shlenker School in Houston.

Portrait of a Shlenker Teacher

As teachers at The Shlenker School, we are educators who demonstrate our dedication to our students, their families, our school’s curriculum, our colleagues, and our school leaders by respecting the Jewish character of our school and adhering to these professional responsibilities and standards:

Responsibilities To Our Students:

  • We will ensure the safety and needs of our students.
  • We will provide a fun, loving learning environment.
  • We will provide a healthy and orderly learning environment in the classroom.
  • We will adjust our teaching styles to the learning styles of all students and their individual needs.
  • We will foster independence and self-confidence in our students by providing opportunities for them to develop social skills.
  • We will take advantage of teachable moments and explore all academic possibilities.
  • We will foster an environment which encourages all students to respect themselves and others.
  • We will help our students understand that mistakes provide us with opportunities to learn.
  • We will praise and acknowledge accomplishments.
  • We will guide our student to love, understand and appreciate Jewish values.

Responsibilities To Our School’s Curriculum

  • We will introduce and teach the curriculum based on common core standards, providing differentiated instruction and individualized attention.
  • We will create a student-centered environment that promotes out-of-the-box thinking and hands-on experiences.
  • We will continually update lessons and materials so they are age-appropriate and meet the needs of every student.
  • We will align our curriculum vertically by working with other grade levels.
  • We will keep current with curriculum trends by attending workshops to improve our knowledge.
  • We will provide curriculum that connects to our students’ lives.
  • We will foster and value the understanding that students come from different backgrounds.
  • We will ensure success by using measurable standards and holding students accountable for them.
  • We will integrate technology into our lessons.
  • We will integrate Jewish content into secular curriculum by looking at our instruction through a Jewish lens.

Responsibilities To Our Students’ Families

  • We will view families as partners in their children’s education.
  • We will keep in constant, honest communication with families regarding weekly activities, academics and behavior.
  • We will make families feel secure that their children are in a safe and friendly environment.
  • We will listen to families’ concerns, follow up, and make our best effort to ensure a positive outcome.
  • We will be respectful, friendly, open-minded towards all Shlenker families.

Responsibilities Toward Our Colleagues

  • We will cooperate and collaborate with other teachers by planning together, supporting new ideas, being flexible and open-minded, and inclusive of all team members.
  • We will support each other by providing guidance and emotional care for new teachers or those in need of our help.
  • We will demonstrate professionalism by handling disagreements privately and by following the school’s procedures.
  • We will respect each other’s differences, strengths and weaknesses.
  • We will, when necessary, agree to disagree and move forward.
  • We will create a non-competitive environment among ourselves.
  • We will share our work with teammates and partners.
  • We will feel comfortable enough to seek help from our colleagues
  • We will respect the work environment by maintaining focus on student learning.
  • We will refrain from gossip.
  • We will support non-Jewish teachers by helping them understand Jewish culture, values, and grade-level Jewish content.

Responsibilities To Our School Leaders

  • We will be up to date on, adhere to and implement school policies accordingly.
  • We will inform administration promptly if there is an issue with parents, guardians, or grandparents in the classroom so that they are aware of any potential issues.
  • We will be professional and respectful of each administrator’s time and responsibilities and acknowledge the school hierarchy.
  • We will provide the necessary paperwork, information and communications within a day or the stated time to administration.
  • We will know and follow the policies included in The Shlenker School Personnel Handbook and Parent and Student Handbook.
  • We will support schoolwide functions through participation and attendance.
  • We will share successes as well as problems and issues with administration.
Nancy Pryzant Picus
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership