New Jewish Special-ed Teachers’ Program in Canada Included Pre-graduation Israel Tour

With a dozen years of teaching behind her, Sheri Kravetsky knows that each child relates to learning differently. That’s why she’s constantly on the lookout for the latest special-education techniques to help her preschoolers thrive. “Each child approaches their classroom expectations in a different way,” says Kravetsky, who has spent the past nine years as a preschool teacher at the Eitz Chaim Day Schools, an Orthodox Jewish day-school network in Toronto. “They may be auditory learners, tactile learners or visual learners, yet it’s up to the teacher to be able to adapt to each in a multi-sensory fashion so as to maximize the child’s potential.”

On Aug. 28, Kravetsky and 22 other Jewish day-school and supplementary-school teachers will receive a certificate in special education from the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education and York University.

The year-long Tikun Chaim program, which the board calls the first of its kind in North America, covers all aspects of special education.

For a final assignment, students prepared a research and practicum project. Many based their projects on their classroom experiences, producing reading programs and insightful theories on education for gifted children.

The course culminated in the Jewish Agency for Israel’s first trip for special-education teachers to Israel, which Tikun Chaim director Debbie Gladstone said reinforced what had been learned in the classroom.

The trip was co-sponsored by the Jewish National Fund and the federation’s Partnership 2000 program.

About half of the matriculating students, including Kravetsky, toured Israel to hear from academics and observe innovative special-education programs in action.

Kravetsky says she initially signed up for the course to find strategies to help her preschoolers succeed in the classroom. But the Tikun Chaim program also taught her how to identify behavioral disorders, recognize special-education candidates, conduct assessments, advocate for students and handle administration and parents.

She also learned about the government’s role in special education and about services available in her area.

“I came back from every class exhilarated,” says Kravetsky, 43, a mother of five. “I brought it back to my classroom right away — whether in how I organized my day, how I related to the students, or even how I interacted with my co-workers and the school administration.”

But it was the Israel experience that brought it all together, she says. In Eilat, Toronto’s sister city, the group visited a therapeutic horse ranch and discovered that children who don’t like to talk can climb on a horse and feel comfortable being vocal. They also observed children with physical disabilities swimming with dolphins, aided by a therapist.

The group visited Kishurit, a community in Galilee for special-needs adults, and went to Beit Issie Shapiro in Ra’anana, which each year serves nearly 7,750 children and adults with developmental disabilities. At Beit Issie Shapiro they toured a sensory-treatment room for introverted children and saw how flashing lights and soft music can stimulate a child’s senses.

At Havat Hashomer, an army training base in the Golan Heights, the Tikun Chaim group learned about disadvantaged youth who get extra training, remedial education and ongoing assistance to help them succeed in the army and enhance their future prospects. They also went to Etgarim, an outdoor sports and recreation center in Tel Aviv, where they learned about wheelchair-bound people who are able to rappel down a wall.

The Tikun Chaim students were particularly intrigued by the teacher-parent interactions they witnessed. Many Israeli teachers they spoke with visit their students’ homes to get a complete picture of the child, something Canadian teachers rarely do.

“It showed such dedication, that they’re always willing to make connections with the child whatever way possible, so they can promote the child’s success,” Kravetsky says.

“The entire experience has made me think in a much more creative and industrious way when it comes to practicing in the classroom,” she said. “It’s not about the teacher standing up there being the authoritative figure. It’s about the child participating in the learning process as well.”

A second group of 26 teachers, representing Jewish preschools, elementary, middle and high schools, began their Tikun Chaim studies this month. Gladstone hopes the course will run for a third time next year.

“They came out feeling really great,” she says of the program’s first graduating class. “They learned a tremendous amount and they have made huge changes” in terms of “how they view kids and how they view themselves working in the classroom. One of the teachers said the word ‘lazy’ has come out of her vocabulary. It’s quite spectacular.”

For more information on the Tikun Chaim special-education course, visit www.bjetoronto.org.

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