The Master’s Degree as a Way to Deepen the Talent and Motivation of Teachers

A student in our graduate Jewish education program recently wrote to us to share how our program shaped her and her role as a Jewish educator. Her career path was opening up, she felt, because of the deep work that she had done on her leadership skills, her Jewish understanding and her sense of self as a learner and teacher. Our faculty has spent the past year learning about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, reading Daniel Pink’s Drive as the basis of our exploration and investigating its application to Jewish education. Both of these experiences prompted us to ask: What are the ways that a master’s program deepens the talent and motivation of Jewish educators?

Since there are so many training paths to the voluntary and privatized system of Jewish education in North America, and so many settings in which educators work, we sought to better understand how the master’s degree is uniquely positioned to offer transformation for educators. Drawing from our experience working with graduate students in Jewish education over many years, this is a perspective based on alumni careers, student experiences and faculty aspirations. It is helpful to explore this question through the lenses of autonomy, meaning-making and mastery, as articulated by Daniel Pink, in the development and growth of Jewish educators.


“A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. According to a cluster of recent behavioral science studies, autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burnout, and greater levels of psychological well-being.” (Pink 89)

The field of Jewish education is a varied and diverse one; it encapsulates many educational settings and environments, from the formal grammar of schooling with its set curricula and competency-based assessments all the way to experiential experiences offered in non-classroom settings, including the home, college campus or outdoors settings. As such, cultivating autonomy is an important feature of any master’s program in order that students seek their own place and focus along the multiple paths of the program. Coupled with the possibility of a number of concentrations, the autonomous self is choosing and selecting on the basis of a growing focus of interest and depth. While we emphasize the need to understand all settings, we also guide students to develop their own niche and expertise for their chosen setting.

Students can navigate course selections in a way that tracks with their professional and personal aspirations for growth. Their assigned project choices in each course build their expertise and allow them to experiment with ideas and approaches with their learners, and then return to critically reflect on them in an academic setting with their cohort and instructor. Ultimately, these choices will build toward a deep and rigorous exploration of a problem of practice as the final capstone thesis. As anyone who has written a thesis or dissertation can attest, this is among the hardest and loneliest of autonomous tasks. Yet embedding autonomy in a program from the very beginning hones the skills of individual choice, scaffolding of major tasks and sustained motivation and drive towards a final successful end goal. These skills are necessary both for an extended research paper and an educational leadership role.

A mid-career student invited us to join in her deliberation of issues initiated in her coursework that were relevant to her workplace and personal leadership:

I do want to tell you how relevant the abstract “Preparing Children for Spirituality” is at this exact moment in my role as religious school director. I was presented with an issue that relates directly with the ideas of interpersonal sensitivity and exhibiting holiness in our relationships in school. In fact, I will probably draw upon the points explored when I address the sixth grade students who are struggling with these concepts and their lack of sensitivity. However, I am also presented with some challenges that there are parents of some of the students who are clearly modeling poor behavior and insensitivity that is fueling the lack of sensitivity of the students. I would love to speak with you about this because I see a much deeper, more serious problem that is festering.


“Only engagement can produce mastery. And pursuit of mastery, an important but often dormant part of our third drive, has become essential in making one’s way in today’s economy.” (Pink 109)

The content of a master’s degree can be overwhelming, particularly when one considers the nature of Jewish education and its associated disciplines: Jewish studies, social studies, Hebrew language, Jewish textual sources in their original languages, character and moral education, social and emotional learning, religiosity and spiritual search. So mastery must be selected and honed by the student. In our program, we encourage students to become “master” and “mistress” of their own learning in the following ways:

First, the weaving of content, pedagogy and application to practice through deep immersion in Jewish texts. We find this inherently improves practice through the ability to articulate connection to theory and the evolution of a personal educational philosophy. At the same time, it ties educators to a larger and longer conversation about education and Jewish education.

Second, a deep practice of reflection through intense advising and faculty mentoring over three years. This is an opportunity for the loop of feedback, reflection, change, re-reflection and ultimate evolution as a practitioner to take place.

Third, providing a safe laboratory space to experiment and grapple with academic, professional/vocational questions that can feel too vulnerable for the workplace. And this feels essential to the evolution toward mastery, “the desire to get better and better at something that matters” (Pink 109).

In the professional workplace, mastery achieved in graduate studies gives a leadership role even to the classroom teacher, as witnessed by this alumna:

Tonight was the third grade service Shabbat, and in addition to having the kids present the Hebrew letter posters they designed to form the alef bet, the parents who are studying on Sunday morning were invited up for an aliyah. The director shared with everyone how it was my thesis research that prompted her to start this program. I thought I was going to cry when I saw the group of eight to 10 parents at the Torah. It was so heartwarming to see them up there and made me feel proud that my work has had such a positive impact in our community.


“Autonomy and mastery are essential. But for proper balance we need a third leg—purpose, which provides a context for its two mates. Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do so in service of some greater objective can achieve more. The most deeply motivated people . . . hitch themselves to a cause larger than themselves.” (Pink 131)

In a graduate course entitled Spiritual Development in Jewish Education, students face the challenge of realizing the potential of cultivating making meaning in others. This has been expressed by a student in describing a classroom pedagogy:

The modality called “philosophical inquiry” provides a means to ask questions about every story in the Torah curriculum. In a combined second and third grade class with a “Torah and Me” curriculum, children added their questions in a reflection exercise, with a project coming from the inquiry. It was a mind-blowing opportunity as an educator, for me, because of the children’s connections to their own lives and experiences in the stories. By sharing their feelings, it enabled the children to relate to their feelings and connect to their own difficult stories. One child’s story was about the death of her mother, and she wondered if Sarah (in the Torah) died similarly to her mother.

Once there is a realization that Jewish education is aptly designed for the very meaning-making that we wish to instill in our families and children, then we as teachers need to understand more fully the process for this intentional work. It was Janucz Korczak who said we cannot get to know children until we know the child within us. A master’s degree program with its level of trust, intimacy and vulnerability generated over a lengthy period of time offers transformation of the educator into becoming an intentional cultivator of meaning-making and thriving.

The challenges of such an open yet deep transformative experience are many. They include the capacity of the admitted student to grow and develop over the length of the program. Yet these aspirations are challenging for some and difficult to always foster in some students. We continue to discuss whether withdrawn and Leave of Absence students means that we need to revise our expectations of students’ capacities to achieve these underlying goals of such a program. At the same time, we hear more and more the call for short-term relevance for the immediate needs in the classroom or experiential experience. This too we continue to review, noting that fostering autonomy, meaning-making and mastery doesn’t come from the quick fix or the easy answer. Indeed, the unresolved question that leads to a critical analysis of the very issue at heart is the key to growing to live with ambiguity and lead with the enduring essential question.

When a student came to us with a capstone thesis proposal concerning the teaching of the “illegal and repressive” Israeli Occupation of the Palestinian territory, we all gave pause for thought. It was a long and arduous process for the student and faculty to struggle with the role of education in heated political situations, to evaluate the nature of curriculum as a selective tool, to face assumptions and passionate beliefs while at the same time exemplifying a leadership stance. The student’s final thesis, entitled “Peacemaking and Healing through Exposure in the Israel Studies Curriculum,” was a testimony to the unfolding of a six-month process of autonomy, meaning-making and finally mastery of Jewish educational leadership.

If our programs succeed in creating experiences that drive autonomy, meaning-making and mastery for Jewish education graduate students, then we should see those outcomes reflected in their students as well. This depth of intrinsic motivation can be contagious when modeled by educators who act as catalysts for their students’ independence and drive. A student recently reflected on this ripple effect:

You played such a big role in how I ended up delivering this and being able to believe in myself to do so (with so much courage and vulnerability). I have no doubt that you offering that to me will be a gift that keeps on giving (to me and the communities with whom I will work) as I continue teaching in this way of integrating movement and spoken/sung word.

Michael Shire, Deborah Skolnick Einhorn
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning