strong connections

A madrichim program grounded in resilience

A year ago, I sat in the makeshift office that I had set up in the corner of my bedroom. I was trying to focus on how to support our madrichim (teen classroom assistants) in the coming year. At the same time, I was worried about my own children, who were facing a summer with no camp, and possibly a year of virtual school. When I work with madrichim, I often feel a tension that needs to be bridged. On the one hand, the teens are “employees,” and their function is to support students. Teens who participate in the madrichim program should feel accountable to uphold all their responsibilities as teachers. On the other hand, they should also feel nurtured and cared for by synagogue staff. This second part felt even more important now than in the past.

For both my own teenagers and the teens I supervise, I predicted that building up resilience would be key.

Psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress. There are several strategies that are commonly identified as ways to build resilience. Among them are:

  1. Build connections
  2. Find purpose
  3. Seek help from trusted adults

Fortunately, these strategies map remarkably well onto the work teens do as madrichim.

BUILD CONNECTIONS

In our overall programming at Temple Shalom of Newton, we focus on relationships and building connections. In my work with madrichim this year, I put a lot of emphasis on three categories of connections:

  1. Connection with teachers. Good teaching depends on strong partnerships among the adults in the room. These strong partnerships are built through good communication. Teachers needed to send their lesson plans in a timely manner to madrichim so that madrichim could feel comfortable knowing what was expected of them during class. At the same time, madrichim needed to be reliable communication partners. Teachers needed to be able to trust that their madrichim would open and read all the lesson plans, and send questions if they had any. I spent many hours this year communicating with teachers and teens, giving them the scaffolding they needed to have good communication with one another. The result was that many strong relationships were formed. According to one madricha, “I was able to work successfully with the majority of my teachers. They worked really hard to make connections with me and other madrichim which was so beneficial and really made the entire experience really amazing.”
  1. Connection with students. Madrichim serve many important functions in the religious school classroom. They help with concrete tasks like taking attendance and passing out snacks. They support learning through leading activities or helping students focus. However, the most important role of the madrich is to help every student feel welcome and included. It was powerful to witness madrichim taking ownership, and realizing that it was in their power to help younger students feel connected in a time when we were all struggling with loneliness.
  1. Connection with each other.  We were blessed to have an amazing cohort of madrichim, each of whom brought their own strengths and talents to our program. I tried to structure training programs for them that would give them opportunities to connect with one another. In addition, I tried to be strategic about classroom assignments. I hoped to pair each madrich with a partner who might be a good social fit for him/her. 

FIND PURPOSE

  1. Find purpose in their connection to Judaism. This year, we experimented with including our madrichim in staff training that was specifically about the Jewish content of our learning units. Our conversations about topics from everything ranging from “How do you mark Jewish time” to “How do we live Torah?” were rich and meaningful. Based on their end-of-year reflections, I know our teens came away from each of these conversations with a deeper connection to the Jewish content we studied. According to the teens, they learned about the holidays of Sukkot, Passover, and Rosh Hashanah.  One teen shared that she learned about many different Jewish foods, and how they are connected to Jewish culture. In our final quarter, we studied some of the commandments in the book of Leviticus, and how they apply to our lives today. One teen shared, “I learned about the commandment which said not to clear the corners of your field – instead leave it for the poor and strangers. This made me think about how these commandments could apply today. For example, I thought about the work we do at the Community Freedge. Community members leave what they can and take what they need, similar to the commandment.” This teen made a Jewish connection to social action work she was already doing. 
  1. Find purpose in supporting younger students. As stated above, we gave our teens a mission to help the younger students feel welcome and included in their classrooms. Many of the teens stated that they felt a sense of purpose in this role and made it a priority to be available to them.
  1.  Find purpose in developing skills that can transfer to other areas of life. Something that came through loud and clear in the end of year reflections was the deep pride the madrichim felt in learning and applying new skills. Our training sessions covered leadership topics, teaching strategies, and general job skills. It was very clear to me that mastering some of these skills gave our madrichim a substantial sense of accomplishment. In the words of one teen, “I feel like I have learned more leadership skills. In past years, I have walked around the room awkwardly and helped out where I could. This year, I was running some breakout groups which I felt required a more active role which was nice to try out.”

SEEK HELP FROM TRUSTED ADULTS

  1. Connection with me. More than ever before, I wanted to establish a strong connection between myself and each of the seventeen madrichim who participated in the program. I made it a priority to check in with the teens frequently- both formally and informally. As I read through their feedback at the end of the year, there were many responses like this: “One challenge that I faced this year was in the first quarter when I wasn’t really getting to do anything in the expedition that I was helping in. I talked to Alison during one of my one on one conferences and I think she talked to the teacher because after that I got to do more.” My goal was to make sure the teens felt recognized and valued. The feedback I received reinforces to me that the madrichim felt they could share their challenges with me, and I would help improve the situation.
  1. Connection with synagogue staff. I was thrilled that we had seventeen teens who stayed engaged with the madrichim program throughout this past year. These teens had regular contact with our Learning and Engagement Team members. We served as trusted adults our teens could turn to at any time. One teen shared this reflection, “It was clear that the LE Team members were trying to connect with madrichim. They made it feel like a welcoming and supportive environment.”

In many ways, our madrichim program was very successful. According to feedback in the end of year reflection, teens reported feeling proud of their work. They also reported that they enjoyed the program, and they felt they made strong connections with students and partner teachers. One area I’d like to work on next year is to help them build connections with one another. While I worked hard at scaffolding communication between teachers and madrichim, I didn’t do the same for facilitating connections between madrichim.  

Many synagogue religious school programs utilize the strengths and talents of their community’s teens to support student learning. In the year that just passed, I used the framework of resilience to find clarity in the tension between our teens as religious school employees and our teens as synagogue members. Yes, our teens need to take their responsibilities seriously, but our responsibility to them comes first. In a year when many of them experienced loss, isolation, and many disappointments, I wanted them to feel good about their participation in our program. In order to feel successful, they needed to have every tool possible to be effective teachers, partners, and role models. My role this year was to help our madrichim build connections and find purpose in their work. I also wanted to open the door for them so they could come to me and my colleagues for help if they needed it. In other words, my role was to help build an experience that supported our madrichim’s resilience.

Alison Lobron is inclusion and program development coordinator at Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass.