State of the Field: Teacher Training for Day Schools

Dr. Rona Novick is the director of the Fanya Gottesfeld Heller Doctoral Program in Jewish Education and Adminsitration at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.

Dr. Shira D. Epstein is an assistant professor of Jewish education in the Davidson School at JTS and coordinates the day school concentration.

Dr. Susan Wall is the director of the Pardes Educators Alumni Support Program, teaches pedagogy to the Pardes Educators and is on the staff of the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators.

Dr. Sharon Feiman-Nemser is the Mandel Professor of Jewish Education at Brandeis University where she directs the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education, teaches practitioner research in the Delet Program and does research on teacher education and teacher learning.

Amy Ament is the associate director of the Jewish New Teacher Project (JNTP), which partners with schools to train and support mentors for beginning teachers in their schools, and adjunct instructor in the education department at Stern College for Women.

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern is the dean of the Graduate Center for Education at American Jewish University, and is a day school alumna and parent.

This roundtable conversation expands upon a similar conversation that took place at this past year’s North American Day School Conference.

Is the current system of teacher training for day schools working? I.e., are enough teachers being trained at the level needed to be effective Jewish educators in day schools? If not, what needs to be done better and what changes do you think should take place?

Sharon Feiman-Nemser: The question makes several assumptions which are problematic. First, it implies that there is a “system of teacher training” for day school teachers. Nothing could be further from reality. There are a handful of programs that prepare day school teachers (e.g., the DeLeT programs at HUC-JIR in LA and at Brandeis University, the PARDES Educators Program, the teacher education program at YU) and other graduate programs with tracks for day school teachers. But there is nothing systematic about these efforts: no common standards for what well prepared day school teachers should know, do, care about and no shared standards for what strong professional preparation entails.

A second assumption is that we actually know how many teachers are being prepared to teach various subjects at various levels and how many such teachers are actually needed. No one collects that kind of data, so we have no dependable basis for making projections about the supply of and demand for well prepared day school teachers.

The question also presumes that we know what it means to be an “effective Jewish educator” and what it takes to prepare one. Is an effective Jewish educator someone who knows how to make her subject matter accessible to diverse learners? Is an effective Jewish educator someone who models meaningful Jewish living? Is an effective Jewish educator someone who produces strong student learning? Is an effective Jewish educator someone who creates a caring and engaged learning community?

I appreciate the opportunity to think with colleagues about these important questions regarding day school teacher education and development and thank you for posing them.

Miriam Heller Stern: Day schools are diverse in their visions, ideologies and school cultures. Day school leaders, both lay and professional, need to participate in the conversation about teacher training if we are to create a shared set of expectations for Jewish teaching that serves a shared vision for the graduates and Jewish communities we hope our schools will foster.

Shira Epstein: Another challenge is that day schools do not have one unified vision of what constitutes an “ideal” teacher. During the job search process, students share that while some schools place primacy on specific Judaics skills or competencies such as rabbinics or teaching Ivrit b’Ivrit, others seek a young, dynamic teacher who can implement constructivist methods. Some schools are willing to compromise on “content knowledge” if they see potential in a teacher for cultivating a positive classroom culture, possessing a solid approach to behavioral management, or attending to the needs of learners with diverse needs.

Amy Ament: I, too, appreciate the opportunity to think with this esteemed panel about what it could look like if there were synergy (or at least alignment) between the teacher preparatory programs and the support they receive in the field. Pre-service education plays a critical role in establishing norms and expectations of behavior for teachers (reflective thinking, looking at student work, collecting and analyzing data) for teachers. How powerful it could be if there were one spectrum of teacher practice that included pre-service and in-service support and professional development.

What do beginning day school teachers need to know, care about, and be able to do?

Rona Novick: To consider what teachers in Jewish day schools need to know and be able to do, we must consider what we hope graduates of Jewish day schools will know and be able to do. Like all graduates of all schools, they are expected to possess knowledge of and skills in those subjects taught, and for Jewish day school graduates this includes two distinct curricula. Teachers in Jewish day schools must therefore, like their secular school colleagues, possess both pedagogic and content-area knowledge. I suggest two additional areas of skills and knowledge critical to success for Jewish day school students: social-emotional and spiritual growth. Public schools’ attempts to address social-emotional learning may be limited by the current focus on academic standards. Jewish day school teachers, tasked with inculcating students with a way of thinking and living as part of a community, must have promoting students’ social and spiritual growth as an educational priority. 

Jewish thought and practice values community. From the requirement to have a quorum of 10 for prayer to Jewish rituals for times of joy and mourning, Judaism is not a lone wolf culture or religion. Students in Jewish day schools need well-developed skills of empathy, to encourage their active and positive participation in their local communities. Much more challenging than engaging students in clothing drives for peers oceans away, or raising funds for disaster victims, is the development of a caring school community where every student accepts his/her responsibility for every other student’s sense of safety, belonging and value.

Empathy is a skill all schools want their students to master, but in public schools, students have greater social choices. Jewish students, participants in a somewhat insular and highly connected social community, will most likely attend school, camp, sports leagues and scouting groups with the same cohort of students. Learning to get along with and care about those peers not only serves children’s personal needs, it is the building block for the social engagement and responsibility Jewish communities need for their continuity.

Teachers in Jewish schools are charged with another incredible challenge: the spiritual development of their students. This necessitates understanding spiritual development and finding a delicate balance between teaching skills that underpin Jewish ritual, and creating an environment that encourages students to consider, question and address large issues of God and belief. Teachers are, at once, storytellers, skill-builders, philosophers, and role models. Well beyond knowing Jewish ritual, history and texts, teachers in Jewish day schools need to know how to gift their students with enough knowledge and skill to appreciate the majesty and mystery of Jewish tradition and belief.

Amy Ament: We must also ask ourselves if we have these expectations only for our teachers of Judaic texts. What about general studies teachers? What about non-Jewish teachers who teach in our schools?

Miriam Heller Stern: Facing one’s vulnerability is essential for the empathy, spiritual development and community building which Dr. Novick describes. Our students and teachers are often so afraid to fail that they cannot bravely face and overcome their challenges. With so much pressure to perform and achieve, our school cultures need to signal to students and teachers that it is okay to be vulnerable, because vulnerability is the first step toward growth.

What other expectations are there for the diverse roles day school teachers need to play?

Susan Wall: My hesitation in addressing this question lies in setting out expectations that are so enormous that they would seem impossible to achieve. And yet, being a teacher—and particularly a Judaic studies teacher in a Jewish day school—must be an avocation, not just a profession. Given the limited time allotted to Judaic studies during the week, if day schools are to help students form substantial and meaningful Jewish identities (in addition to teaching them Jewish content), the role the teacher plays must extend beyond the classroom.

Teachers are called on to plan and facilitate holiday programs, lead discussions of current events and staff shabbatonim. We expect that they will facilitate tefillah, chaperone Israel trips, serve as a Jewish resource for colleagues and parents (sometimes as the Jewish resource in smaller communities). Most teachers are not equipped with the different skill sets that would allow them to live up to these expectations. How many have worked in experiential education, spent significant time in Israel and personally struggled with tefillah?

All teachers should be able to relate well to students, but this is particularly important when the students identify their teachers with what it means to be Jewish. We need teachers who are real and accessible Jewish role models: teachers with a passion for what they teach, for Jewish life and Jewish peoplehood. Teachers who have grappled with and continue to grapple with the same issues of faith and relevance that their students grapple with. Teachers who embody Jewish values in their behavior, in and out of the classroom.

Our day schools are mini-communities. We expect our teachers to value and respect not only the school’s orientation, but the unique perspective that each student (from whatever background or affiliation) brings to this enterprise of Jewish learning. We want our children to learn how to build and be part of those communities, which includes seeing how their teachers take part in that community, how they relate to one another and to their students. And these teachers need to model for the students their commitment to continued learning and growth as Jews.

These expectations have ramifications for who we hire as well as for our pre-service training, induction and professional development. This is a great deal to expect from any one person, but holy work demands nothing less.

What roles can/do schools play in teacher preparation, induction, continuing PD?

Amy Ament: The Jewish New Teacher Project, the day school division of the New Teacher Center, primarily works with two populations of teachers: our mentors are teachers with five or more years of experience in the classroom, who are skilled practitioners, effective communicators, open-minded thinkers and good listeners; the teachers they work with are in their first years of teaching.

In the past ten years, we have learned the following about what both novice and veteran teachers need:

Teachers are not “finished products” at the completion of their pre-service training programs. (We should also acknowledge that not all teachers have the benefit of attending a preparatory program.) Just as graduates in the field of law, medicine or engineering are required to pursue apprenticeships, residencies, or other on-the-job training, so too, our teachers in their first years are in need of support and growth opportunities. New teachers want to become the most successful and effective teachers they can be. It is our responsibility to help them become so. It is during these first years that teachers learn the habits of practice that will guide them throughout their careers, including reflection, self-assessment and collaboration with others.

The first years of teaching are a transition period for teachers. During this time, they actualize, implement and apply the knowledge and theory they bring with them. They need permission and a safe framework in which to experiment with ideas, strategies and techniques. They need feedback from trusted allies. They need opportunities to examine their practice in deep and objective ways. Truly, all teachers benefit from this type of environment where reflection and collaboration are the norm.

Teachers of all levels of experience and expertise need the opportunity to continue their growth and learning, and professional development needs to be ongoing. Somewhere around years 5-7, teachers’ practice could begin to plateau. With sustained and meaningful professional development—these teachers can recharge, refuel and reach levels of mastery as they deepen their professional knowledge, effectiveness and self-efficacy. One of the most powerful aspects of mentoring is that the newly-trained mentors return to their classrooms revitalized; the skills they learn help them become better teachers themselves.

It is incumbent upon schools to help induct new teachers into the profession and provide ongoing learning opportunities for more experienced teachers.

Schools can support these teachers by providing:

Opportunities for growth for novice and veteran teachers. When we create cultures within our schools where reflection and professional growth are valued, we open the doors for all teachers to learn. Beginning teachers bring with them valuable assets; they are passionate, committed, idealistic, and enthusiastic, and those with pre-service experience often bring with them an understanding of the latest research in education and psychology. Schools can provide opportunities for teachers to become part of a community of learners where all teachers collaborate and benefit from the exchange. In these cases, the culture becomes one where are teachers grow; everyone can make mistakes and support each other. Wouldn’t it be empowering if the talk in the teachers’ room were focused on teaching and learning?

Individual support for beginning teachers. We advocate for one-on-one, intensive, instructional mentoring for all new teachers, the goal of which is for beginning teachers to develop reflective, problem-solving, collaborative habits of practice. Providing the time and personnel to do this is an investment in the school’s future, one from which the school will reap benefits down the line. With the support of their mentor, novice teachers receive dedicated time and dedicated space to reflect on their practice, look at student work, get feedback on their teaching, collect and analyze data, set goals and self-assess their professional practice on a continuum of professional teaching standards. We have also seen effective results when principals ensure that the working conditions are conducive to teacher success and growth, including dedicated time, adequate supplies and resources, and appropriate assignments, along with clear communication about expectations and ongoing feedback.

Sharon Feiman-Nemser: Without strong clinical sites, it is impossible to mount a strong teacher preparation program. Teaching is a practice, so learning to teach ultimately happens in the context of teaching. Experienced day school teachers play an essential role as models and mentors, inducting aspiring and beginning teachers into the intellectual and practical work of teaching.

New teacher induction happens with or without an intentional program. New teachers learn through their daily interactions what it means to be a teacher in a given day school and whether they can ask for help. Day schools that take the learning needs of new teachers seriously give them appropriate assignments and provide the material and human support they need to succeed.

All teachers deserve ongoing opportunities to study and improve their teaching. Such professional development can take many forms: teachers observing one another, developing curriculum together, analyzing student work, engaging in lesson study. To insure that these professional learning opportunities result in improved practice, day schools need teacher leaders who can facilitate productive teacher learning.

Shira Epstein: In pre-service training, we ask our student teachers to continuously, methodically engage in “reflective practice.” We can’t, however, expect that they will integrate this time-consuming practice into their daily work when they are overwhelmed first-year teachers. Novice teachers need sustained opportunities for reflection both with in-school mentors and during structured consultation with groups of colleagues.

Susan Wall: I agree with both Amy and Sharon in terms of the importance of providing new teachers with strong induction support. Unfortunately there is too wide a range in terms of what schools do provide and the financial investments they make toward teacher learning. We need some commitment to national standards of teacher induction and access for all teachers to induction support and continuing professional development.

How do you see the needs of the field changing, in terms of the skills and knowledge that teachers are expected to have?

Miriam Heller Stern: In an increasingly competitive school marketplace, where parents are demanding “the best” education for their children and the best value for their tuition, Jewish schools have become far more motivated to cater to the desires of their consumers. In this climate, parents, students and school leaders expect teachers to be jacks of all trades: they must be adept at the latest innovative and technological trends in education; experts in subject matter; and churn out students who consistently score high on standardized tests.

To satisfy sometimes divergent expectations, teachers need to learn how to navigate their pedagogical choices in their daily decisions: when is student learning served best through lecture, and when do students thrive in pursuing independent projects? When is training in testing skills appropriate, and when does the subject invite authentic, creative assessments? In most Jewish day schools, teachers need to be both conventional and progressive to meet all of their constituents’ expectations. Whereas it was once assumed that teaching was uniform and predictable, today teachers need to be prepared to diversify their offerings. The disposition of decision-making is essential for a teacher’s success, a disposition which takes practice and experience to hone.

Beyond delivering excellence in academics, in a Jewish school, the teacher is the gatekeeper of the Jewish soul. Developing a love of learning is as important as mastering content. Most Jewish schools also want their graduates to be leaders, mentsches, and committed to Israel and the Jewish people. The Jewish establishment has pinned high hopes for the Jewish future on Jewish schools, and Jewish teachers hold the keys to that future. There is no master key, however; the teacher must master how to match many different keys to multiple locks.

Rona Novick: The change in how schools and families relate creates another area of skill teachers require. Whereas previously parents viewed schools as respected and unchallengeable authorities, current educational practice encourages parent involvement and respects parents’ unique knowledge about their children. In Jewish day schools, parental involvement may be critical to the success of various programs, but it may also cause territorial tensions. With intense pressures on both schools (demands for stellar academic curricula and meaningful religious studies) and families (more families with both parents in the workforce), it is not surprising that struggles regarding boundaries and job descriptions surface. Overworked and overburdened, schools and parents task each other with increasing responsibilities, arguing about whose job it is to teach social skills, inculcate religious values, build self-esteem, develop manners, etc. Amid this often tense debate, teachers are challenged to cultivate and maintain productive relationships with parents.

What are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in your time working with teachers? What are the most positive developments and the biggest challenges for the field, in your view?

Shira Epstein: One of the biggest changes I’ve noticed over the past decade is schools’ implementation of processes and structures that enable teachers to more fully attend to the socio-emotional needs of their learners, as Rona discusses above. The student teaching experience has expanded to include mentoring on how to facilitate biweekly advisory groups and how to thoughtfully contribute to a team meeting that focuses on how best to support the needs of one particular child.

While novice teachers are pleasantly surprised by schools’ focus on relationship-building, they are often overwhelmed by the expectations and demands that this places upon them. In my own first year of teaching, if anxious parents wanted to reach me after hours, they would need to leave a voice mail message and wait until I had time the following day to connect. When a first-year teacher receives a detailed late-night email from a parent, the pressure is felt immediately to craft a response that conveys concern and understanding—and this can come at the cost of much-needed sleep.

We want teachers to take advantage of digital platforms that allow them to keep parents and learners engaged with daily updates on assignments, grades and behavioral issues. We need to also be sensitive, however, to novice teachers’ learning curve in managing their time, and to helping them to set reasonable limits and expectations for both themselves and others.

Susan Wall: echo what Shira said in terms of the challenge of the increased expectations on teachers (and how overwhelming this can be for our newest teachers). There is clearly a very positive side to the accountability this implies, but new teachers need the support of administration not only in setting limits, but in how to respond to these numerous demands. In terms of positives, I see a greater emphasis on big ideas and meaning-making in the study of Jewish texts, and making text study a more central focus of the Judaics curriculum.♦

Dr. Rona Novick, Dr. Shira D. Epstein, Dr. Susan Wall, Dr. Sharon Feiman-Nemser, Amy Ament, Dr. Miriam Heller Stern
Day School Teachers
Knowledge Topics
Professional Leadership