Changing Teacher Practice While Judaism Itself is Evolving – An Act of Trust?

By Bill Robinson

Ever since the 1990 National Jewish Population Study revealed the high rates at which Jews were intermarrying, millions of dollars have poured into the educational field to either increase the number of young Jews participating in models believed to work (e.g., day schools, camps, and Israel programs) or to innovate those models deemed failing – notably congregational education.

The linchpin of innovation is our ability to radically improve the way teachers teach. There is no way to transform learning without changing teaching, and thus teachers. Yet, we have been working at this problem without sufficiently taking into account that the deficiencies of Jewish education are only a symptom of a much larger shift in the underlying landscape of what it means to be Jewish in contemporary society.

There have been notable successes over the last two decades in teacher education and we have many congregational schools “that work.” Yet, our record of changing the practice of teachers in congregational settings is still woefully inadequate. Many reasons have been put forth: from “we don’t pay enough to hire talented educators” to “put a good teacher in a dysfunctional institution and the institution wins all the time.” Both of these are likely true; but insufficiently so.

The four reasons, which have not received adequate attention, as to why we have not yet radically changed the field of Jewish education are:

1. We work with teachers (and institutions) as isolated individuals, instead of seeing teaching as delivered always through a web of relationships and networks. Thus, each initiative only works on part of the system, instead of collaborating to work on the whole.

I’m sure most of us at one time have thought about what actually needs to happen to have created the meal we are eating – from my relationship to the person who cooked it to the store that sold the food, the trucks that carried it, the farms that grew it, the government policies that oversee farming, and the changing environment that affects the success of crops. But, how many of us think about all the relationships that are part of any learning experience we have had – the training and personal growth of the teacher, the relationships among teacher colleagues, the role of institutional leadership in setting goals and educational strategies, the role of other students in my learning, the physical environment and how it came to be, the materials created for use by the teacher, and the shared understandings (and changing perceptions) of what Judaism means today in our lives.

2. We are schizophrenic in our beliefs about the ability of teachers to radically improve. Either we create initiatives that expect every teacher to grasp bold new ideas and implement them on their own or we focus our efforts elsewhere in the system – on institutional development or new models of family and experiential education (all of which are necessary but not sufficient) – trying for a time to forget that someone somewhere needs to do the new teaching.

As parents or teachers, we understand that you cannot expect a child to master new, difficult tasks without substantial support – from helpful hints and emotional encouragement to having the appropriate tools and simply being given adequate time. Yet, teacher education often lacks one or more of these essential components in sufficient amount. The analogy to the alternative of working around the teacher is sneakers that do not require tying; yet, this just puts off the inevitable. Children eventually need to learn how to tie their sneakers; and while some learning can be self-directed and happen virtually, all children ultimately need good teachers.

3. We tremble at the capacity truly needed to change teacher practice, because there are just too many parts to focus on simultaneously. So, we choose to only focus on one slice of this complex reality at one time, half-blindly hoping that we can achieve our desired results without attending to the whole.

Good teaching is a challenging and uncertain practice; no matter how much we desire to do so, you cannot script it or package it. Changing teacher practice is exponentially even harder, when you understand that you need to address the whole person – the cognitive, social, emotional and spiritual parts of that teacher. And, you also need take into account of the whole system of relationships in which teaching is enmeshed – other teachers, principals, rabbis, parents, students, educational resource providers, other educational programs, and those who influence our understanding of that which we are teaching – Judaism.

4. If it wasn’t already difficult to change teacher practice, the ground is shifting from under us – what is means to “do Jewish” is changing and evolving. Yet, the most common perspective is to see Jewish education as socializing students into a given, shared Jewish culture.

Most of us have taken a survey course in college, such as theater appreciation 101; much of what passes for learning in congregations these days is a survey course. Yet, the purpose of Jewish education is not to teach appreciation of Judaism, but the equivalent of teaching theater students to be actors, directors, set and costume designers, and producers. It’s not audience Judaism for our youth, but participatory Judaism we need to teach. And, we need to do this while Judaism itself is evolving. To continue the analogy, it’s teaching them to be actors and directors when the whole understanding of what is means to be in theater is changing – where it takes place, the role of the audience, even what a play is.

So, now what? The task is daunting, yet the “Master of the house is pressing.” Through all the truly remarkable and worthwhile efforts that have taken place over the last two decades in Jewish teacher education, we have only been playing at the edges, overwhelmed by the responsibility needed to take on the whole.

As we continue the task of innovation in congregational education:

  • We need to trust that teachers are capable of this work. We need to give them sufficient support and hold them accountable to achieving radically improved teaching. (Not holding them accountable is a sign of a lack of trust in their abilities.)
  • We need to work together in order to address the whole teacher and the whole system. No one initiative or organization is capable of having the expertise or resources to affect the whole, so we need to invest the time and effort needed to nurture collaboration. This will require that we also trust each other – that we are all capable of (and necessary for) creating the change we seek.
  • We need to bridge the divides that typically separate those who work in education from those who work in Judaism. Our networks and collaborations must bring together those skilled in educational change with those who are working to develop exciting, new ways of “doing Jewish.” And, we must learn from each other.
  • We need to believe that we are not Sisyphus, endlessly rolling a rock up the hill only to start over again as we near the top. Rather, we are simply midwifes to a future that is already emerging. We need to trust in that emergent future.

Bill Robinson is the Chief Planning and Knowledge Officer at BJENY-SAJES. He has been associated with numerous teacher education and congregational change programs over the last 15 years, as well as many exciting conversations exploring the emergence of our Jewish future. Bill is currently pushing the boundaries of collaboration, innovation and trust in his work.