Counting All Educators, and Learning as We Count

impactBy Dawne Bear Novicoff

In San Francisco, the school year is about to end. Teachers and children (mine included!) are counting down the final days to summer. In the Jewish calendar, we are counting, too, but upwards rather than down as we mark the days of the Omer.

The end of the school year is a special time – one of marking accomplishments and celebration of learning. It is also a time to celebrate educators. We bring them gifts, make cards and take a moment to acknowledge their centrality to the process and cycle of learning.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation we do this daily. Since the Foundation’s inception, educating Jewish educators has been the first of three Foundation strategic priorities. To date, the Board has awarded more than $120 million to organizations that support educators’ professional credentialing and development, investing in programs that benefit thousands of educators. Consistent with our understanding that effective education occurs in myriad settings and at different life stages, this funding supports a variety of professional development and training opportunities engaging educators of all shapes and sizes – experiential educators, day school educators, Israel educators, peer-to-peer educators, early childhood educators. And these programs support educators at various stages of development, whether they are pre-service, early career, or veteran.

An obvious question is what compels the Foundation to award this amount of funding. There are many reasons. 1) there is a high demand for trained Jewish educators; 2) investments in educator training achieve a long-term multiplier effect through the large numbers of students and colleagues each trained educator ultimately influences; 3) investing in professional development and training programs provides peripheral benefits for advancing the field of Jewish education by contributing to the development and dissemination of knowledge and practice and enhancing the status of Jewish educators; and 4) even with this need and the benefits mentioned here, we still see a systemic under-investment in educator training at all levels, including both in-service and pre-service opportunities.

For the Foundation, another value of these investments (as is true for many of ours) is that the learnings from each have informed subsequent educator training grants. This enables the Foundation to continually experiment with new ways to structure investments to best support the field. Foundation professionals speak frequently both with the partners that conduct the educator training programs – such as the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, the iCenter, and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah – and the many grantees that employee these educators, such as BBYO, the Foundation for Jewish Camp, Hillel, and many more. Through these conversations we gain a deeper understanding of supply and demand for these programs and the types of professional experiences that are most helpful to educators in different settings.

Certainly the seminal investment for the Foundation in this area of strategic priority is the Education Initiative – $45 million in grants for educator professional development and training programs at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, The Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University. Launched in 2010, 18 new certificate and degree programs were developed as a result of this investment focused on expanding educator preparation programs and building capacity to place and support currently practicing and newly trained educators.

This fall, the fifth and final evaluation report of the Education Initiative commissioned from American Institutes for Research (AIR) will be released. With more than 1,500 Jewish educators now part of the data set – including at least a third currently in middle or senior management positions in Jewish education – we are eager to share this summative report and substantial key findings with the field. Among many other areas, we anticipate the report will build on key lessons already learned from the Foundation’s work in the field, including:

1)     Working in partnership with prospective employers at the outset provides opportunity for strategic educator placements and increases the relevance of the learning offered through training programs.

2)     Cohort-based learning experiences establish strong networks for learning and endure well beyond the duration of the program itself, leading to greater alumni engagement and ongoing learning after the formal program conclusion. The exciting development of the Experiential Jewish Educators Alumni Network (about which we will share more soon) is indicative of this.

3)     Effective programs include ongoing and intensive mix of face-to-face, online and ongoing mentoring.

A decade into many of the Foundation’s educator training investments, it is rewarding to see their impact on the field, in action. Last week, for example, some colleagues and I went on a site visit to Stanford University. We met with talented professionals at Hillel working to educate, engage and nurture Jewish students on campus. We discussed the tools and training they need to do their work. We also met with Professor Ari Kelman, Jim Joseph Foundation Chair, and three of Ari’s current graduate students in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies – all of whom are engaged in applied research that will help build the field and help to shape the future of Jewish education and Jewish educators.

A healthy educational eco-system requires a mix of investments with varying target audiences and areas of focus. But undoubtedly, high quality educators are necessary for almost any initiative to be successful. They come from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and interests, each bringing something special to their learners. We continue to hold them in high regard, with the deep belief that all of these educators count – just as we at the Jim Joseph Foundation count on all of these educators.

Dawne Bear Novicoff is Assistant Director of the Jim Joseph Foundation