Are We Even Giving Them One Foot to Stand On?

Parents entrust us with their children, and we in turn entrust them to our teachers. Why not give our teachers the training and support they need to give our students their best?

By Jessica Downey

My fellow educators and I are getting ready to open our supplementary schools. This is an exciting and frightening time all at once.

The year will soon be in full swing; new children will begin their religious education, older students will mentor younger ones and Jewish learning and creativity will once again reverberate throughout our halls.

But low enrollment figures and diminished financial returns could lead to slashed education budgets after High Holy Days. Many of us will revisit our budgets and think about what is easiest to cut, and which line items we can live without this year. For many, it will be professional development for teachers – if those funds are allocated in the first place.

As educators, we belong to various professional organizations and make it a priority to attend conferences each year to network and learn. I have set aside personal funds to supplement those offered by my institution to attend various professional development events.

However, our supplementary school teachers are almost never awarded this luxury.

As I prepare to kick off the new year, I reflect on some things I consider to be “core teachings” for our religious school program.

One example is the Talmudic story of Shammai and Hillel: The gentile comes to Shammai asking to learn the whole Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai shoos him out and tells him it is impossible. The gentile then heads to Hillel and asks for the same teaching. Hillel responds: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it” (Shabbat 31-A).

My colleagues will likely make frequent references to this text. Those who work in Hillel foundations on college campuses are probably reminded of it every day as it is likely engraved on a wall in their building. I often reference this text as a way to remind parents that our school is about more than just prayers, text study and homework. We promote a strong community feel, gimilut chasadim (acts of loving kindness), and meaningful family engagement. But I often leave off, as I suspect many of us do, the last part of Hillel’s words, which offer instruction: “Now go and learn it.” We also reference Pirkei Avot (1:13) with regard to continuing education: “He who does not increase his knowledge forfeits it.” We encourage our students to continue their education each year, and remind parents of their obligation to support their child’s Jewish education.

What if we interpret these texts not in terms of our students and our schools, but with regard to our teachers? If our students are the soul of our institutions, then our teachers represent the heart, pumping knowledge and emotion into everything they teach. They are the ones who compete with soccer, piano lessons, homework and tutoring. They grab the Band-Aids and the ice packs. They wait patiently while students try to read V’ahavta, and go over trope symbols repeatedly until their students hear the correct inflection. When a day of secular school ends, their work begins. And they do it to ensure that the first thing out of their pupils’ mouths will not be “nothing” when asked, “What did you learn today?” by their parents.

Parents entrust us with their children, and we in turn entrust them to our teachers. Why not give our teachers the training and support they need to give our students their best? During High Holy Day appeals we ask families to invest in our synagogues. Why are we not investing in our teachers?

If we really adhere to Rabbi Hillel’s words and the Ethics of the Fathers, how can we not do more for our teachers? How can we expect them to stay in our schools and give the best of themselves to our students if we don’t support their own study and development?

At the end of last year, our school had some modest leftover funds. We were able to make quick arrangements to send three teachers to day-long intensive sessions and asked them to blog about their learning. These funds had not been set aside or reserved; it was truly an afterthought.

These teachers returned armed with tools to improve themselves and their teaching.

They explored how to weave storytelling into lessons, how to connect to Israel in times of conflict, and even how to connect to Judaism on different spiritual levels. More importantly, they came back energized and refreshed to tackle the semester.

As the year begins, I implore us to do better. Let us support our teachers so they can support our students. Sign them up for webinars offered by our own professional organizations. Inquire about day-pass options for local conferences where travel costs are minimal. Organize with fellow educators in our cities to bring speakers in for collaborative workshops and learning sessions. Plan for open space forums in our own schools and find out what they have to offer each other. Let’s reach out to our education committees for ideas on how to promote professional development, raise funds and ensure that our teachers see it as a priority too.

As we move through Elul, let’s truly search within ourselves and ask if what we have been doing for our teachers is enough. I think we won’t have to search very deep to know that it has not.

Only then will we begin to learn the whole Torah.

Jessica Downey is the Director of Jewish Education at University Synagogue in Los Angeles, CA.