Mission Driven Teachers: Veshinantam Lemorekha!

Recently, members of our leadership team began to ask some simple yet critical questions about our mission statement. Are we introducing the document effectively to faculty members who are tasked with realizing it? Do faculty members make personal meaning of it and consciously work to actualize it in their everyday life at school? Should we be providing teachers with feedback about their support of the mission; should their performance in this area be assessed?

We asked these questions because it had become clear over time that the Jewish mission of the school was seen to be the exclusive domain of the Jewish studies faculty members. While all members of the school community know that they are responsible for the overarching, general mission and vision statements of the school, we recognized that the particular statements that include the words “Israel,” “Jewish” and “Torah” are not seen as “mine” for those teachers and administrators who are not part of the Jewish studies department.

This recognition was a long time coming, and may be a familiar phenomenon at other schools as well. Along with the sometimes differentiated status of Jewish and general studies teachers in our schools, this allocation of the Jewish tasks to the Judaic studies staff is frequently tolerated although not talked about.

What to do? At the heart of a successful process that focuses on a school’s mission and vision is a shared understanding by the leadership, who are the vigilant caretakers of the words that drive the school. Therefore, it seemed that the necessary first step was for the administrators to examine the mission and vision statements and to articulate what they mean to each of us. Without this first step, we knew that our expectation for teachers to own these statements would lack integrity.

In this way, we began a process that raised questions concerning our own support of the mission and we began to explore our own understandings. The approach we developed was very Jewish. We created a classic “blatt Gemara,” a traditionally formatted page of Talmud, designed with the mission statement at the center of the page with room all around the margins of the text for questions, comments and exchanges between the commentators, i.e., the administrative leadership of the school. Using this unique protocol, we gave written voice to our interpretations of the mission statement that reflected the varied perspectives of each reader. And we discovered that there are multiple ways to read and understand this text.

At the very same time that we began this exploration of the mission of the school, the administrators were concurrently engaged in a process focusing on teacher evaluation rubrics. On the one hand, the administration was examining its own sense of the mission and each member’s support of same. On the other hand, we were examining how we evaluate teacher performance. Some unidentified force seemed to be guiding us to merge these two processes. A teacher evaluation committee composed of teachers and administrators had been formed to determine how to best guide teachers to excellence in the domains of knowledge of content, delivery of instruction, creation of positive classroom environment, demonstration of school spirit, etc. And in the process of developing newly articulated standards for teacher performance in these domains, the question of how to guide teachers to similar excellence in support of the school mission came to the fore. We came to appreciate that it must be within the framework of the school mission and core visions that everything else should take place.

Beyond the work of the evaluation committee, a leadership team consisting of the curriculum coordinator, academic heads, and an evaluation consultant began to work through what excellence would look like in each domain. For the first time, we added and examined the domain of “realizing the mission” along with other more traditional aspects of teacher evaluation. So in addition to items like “teaches to a variety of learning needs” we now have added “cultivates a positive Jewish identity” and “strengthens connections to Jewish communities in Israel, America and the world.” As with every single item in the rubric, there is a continuum regarding teacher performance that moves from “does not meet standards” through “improvement necessary” to “effective” and finally “highly effective.” And we articulated explicit descriptions for each stage of the continuum.

The new teacher evaluation document is ready to be rolled out for the beginning of the 2014-15 school year. However, prior to encountering the new evaluation document, all general and Jewish studies teachers in early childhood, lower school and middle school will be presented with the opportunity to learn the mission statement and to make meaning of it for themselves. Following some paired reading and learning time, teachers will be invited to take part in a “chalk talk.” A chalk talk is a silent way to do reflection, generate ideas, check on understanding. This is a protocol from the National School Reform Faculty Resource Book that encourages thoughtful contemplation and that allows participants to freely express themselves without the risk of exposure. This particular chalk talk will take place on large sheets of paper which will look like giant pages of Talmud on which the mission statement will be posted in the center with room surrounding it for written comments. We hope that this learning activity will provide the academic leadership with an appreciation for how teachers currently understand the mission, and will guide us so we know what work needs to be done to deepen their understanding as well as their sense of responsibility for actualizing all parts of the mission.

This initiative has brought us back to the ultimate question of “Who am I?” or, in our case, “Who is Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School?” Beginning the process in the leadership team and only then moving it out to the faculty and staff, we can feel confident that we do know who we are, and that we are prepared to guide our teachers to develop their own answers to this question.

As Seymour Fox wrote in Visions of Jewish Education:

Both research and experience demonstrate that visions can be mere pronouncements or can have the most intense impact on a school. … If the principal is not encouraging, supporting and leading the school in the translation of the vision’s ideas into day-to-day practice, the school will drift, its teachers will lose their focus, and students and parents will be denied the excitement of an education whose details are designed to offer them both discernment and meaning. … Despite the unrelenting pressures of the day, they must refuse to separate the vision from its ongoing implementation and review.

With the new school year upon us, we have dedicated ourselves to a renewed focus on the mission. It will be a year in which for the first time, teachers will receive feedback for their demonstrated understanding and support of the mission. It will be a year of Veshinantam lemorekha, of teaching our teachers diligently, designed to strengthen their commitment to the educational vision of our school and to yield students who embody the BZAEDS vision of young educated Jews.♦

Tzivia Garfinkel is the head of Jewish studies at Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago. tgarfinkel@bzaeds.org

Tzivia Garfinkel
Mission & Vision
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning, Governance
Published: Fall 2014