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Rethinking Hebrew School [part 4]: Teacher Training Programs Find Ways to Educate the Educators

Last January, midway through his first year of teaching Sunday school, Dennis Niekro was tempted to quit.

A convert to Judaism, the 30-year-old Niekro had initially agreed to take the part-time job teaching fifth grade at his Columbus, Ohio, temple because he thought it would be another way to connect to Jewish life.

Instead, as a novice teacher with little training or support and only a vague curriculum to guide him, he felt “isolated and alone.”

With part-time schedules, little professional development and few opportunities to develop relationships with colleagues, many supplemental school teachers share Niekro’s feeling of isolation.

Making their jobs even harder is the fact that many have limited Judaic knowledge and, as several educators have noted, “are one lesson ahead of the students.”

As communities around the country are talking about re-envisioning congregational schools — attended by far more American Jewish children than day schools — a number are focusing on the teachers.

“When people try to do reform, it’s very easy to go quickly for structural issues,” said Barry Holtz, a consultant to the Mandel Foundation, which runs an institute that helps communities and schools develop effective teacher development programs.

“But if you try to change structure without working with personnel, you just move deck chairs around on the Titanic,” he said. Changes in a school’s schedule or activities have little long-term impact if teachers are unable to help students “grow as Jews and find Judaism deeply interesting.”

Since its founding four years ago, the Mandel Foundation’s Teacher-Educator Institute has spawned new training and professional development programs around the country, including one that convinced Niekro to sign on for another year of teaching.

Most focus on both strengthening knowledge of Jewish texts and helping teachers figure out effective ways of conveying that knowledge to children.

The institute grew out of a 1994 Mandel Foundation study of Jewish teachers found not only relatively low levels of Jewish education, training and ongoing professional development, but also — perhaps more surprisingly — relatively low turnover rates.

This disproved common perceptions that teachers — particularly Hebrew school teachers — were transient and not worth investing in, said Holtz.

The overwhelming majority of Hebrew school teachers work only a few hours per week while holding down other jobs. Some are teachers elsewhere, either in day schools or public schools, indeed — according to the Mandel report — 55 percent have general education experience.

But many are college students, retirees, or professionals in other fields. A growing number of congregations — particularly those in small Jewish communities — are starting to recruit and train their congregants to be avocational teachers.

Reasons for teaching vary. Some teachers are looking for extra income, some want to work with children and others, such as Niekro, are looking for ways to be involved in Jewish life.

According to the Mandel report, 29 percent of congregational school teachers had received no Jewish education after age 13, and only 12 percent had earned a degree in Jewish studies.

“I would love to be able to say they’re all certified and degreed, but that’s just not so,” Wendy Sadler, director of school services at the Agency for Jewish Education of Metropolitan Detroit, said of the Hebrew school teachers in her community.

Sadler said her teachers have diverse educational and Jewish backgrounds, but that most are clamoring for more training both in Jewish studies and basic pedagogy. In response, her agency is stepping up its professional development programs, offering 60 workshops this year as well as an annual conference.

Other central education agencies are also reviewing their professional development offerings and some — like those in Chicago and Los Angeles — have created master classes, in which highly esteemed teachers mentor their colleagues and give demonstration lectures.

In what appears to be one of the most intensive projects, Cleveland’s College of Jewish Studies and the city’s central agency for Jewish education have enrolled 11 prospective supplemental school teachers in a fully subsidized, 12- hour-per-week, two-year program of study.

Teacher development initiatives are taking place on the synagogue level as well as the community level.

At Congregation Beth Am Israel in suburban Philadelphia, teachers go on a Shabbat retreat once a year. Twice a month, during school hours, they study texts together.

The goal is to enrich teachers’ Judaic knowledge, ensure they use consistent approaches to teaching Torah and give them an opportunity to “develop their own relationship to the texts,” said education director Cyd Weissman.

“Teachers are saying they teach differently than before, and they have relationships with their colleagues,” she said, adding that she believes it is important to “nurture” teachers.

The Florence Melton Adult Mini-School network, best known for its two-year adult education program, is also weighing in on the teacher enrichment front. Last spring it piloted an effort in four communities called the Supplemental Teacher Education Project.

That program — in which teachers study texts once a week through the mini- school and have monthly discussions about teaching practices — is what is keeping Dennis Niekro in the classroom.

Teachers read articles about educational theory, keep journals evaluating how their lesson plans actually worked in the classroom, observe experienced teachers and brainstorm lesson plans together. This year they will also be paired with mentors.

“I don’t have a background in educational theory or curriculum development, and this gives me the opportunity to work with individuals who do have that knowledge and expertise,” said Niekro, who is now considering taking on another Hebrew school job as well.

“What comes out of this,” he added, “is inspiration and the motivation to try new ideas.”

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