By Dr. Sandra Lilienthal
In the past few weeks, thousands of people around the world, who were only marginally connected to Jewish learning, if at all, have attended online classes. They are homebound, in desperate search for connection, intellectual stimulation and safe activities. We have a whole new population of learners who has joined the ranks of those who already participated regularly in classes. When life goes back to normal and people are allowed to leave their homes, go to work, etc., what will happen to those students? Will they turn around and say “thank you, this was great, but now I can go back to what I did before?” Or will they have experienced something that has deeply touched their souls and from which they can no longer move away? Will these new learners join our in-person classes? Or will they expect online learning options? What offerings will we, educators, need to create for them?
Turning from the learner to the teacher, when the Coronavirus became a real threat, I was concerned that, as an independent Jewish educator, I would go months without teaching. These weeks would blend into the summer months, basically meaning I would be with little or no work for over 6 months. Boy, was I wrong!
In the past three weeks, I have taught more than ever. All my classes went online. All the organizations I work for have added classes. And organizations I have never taught for are now requesting sessions. This past week I had one class with 120 participants, and another with over 370 registrations. I could never have imagined how this would had played out. I am thrilled, excited, and exhausted. I am both in awe of what we, Jewish educators have accomplished, and concerned with the new issues we are facing.
Here are some of my concerns:
- We are dealing with techno–anxiety. For most of us, even those who were familiar with Zoom and other technologies, this is still new. We know the basics. But many of our students know more than we do. We need to quickly update ourselves on all those cool things you can do online: sharing different screens, changing backgrounds, using annotations, moving students into break rooms, and so much more. Not to mention the fear that our internet is slow, or worse – down, right when we must teach. Are we, educators and institutions, going to be punished for not being as technological savvy as other educators or institutions? Will our students think less of us? Will they be bored?
- We are exhausted. As educators, we were asked to “smoothly” shift what we do in 24-48 hours. Our lesson plans had to be revised. Our teaching styles changed. We feed off the energy of our students when we teach! Now, we have to find that energy in a virtual environment. And we were thrown into this new reality from one minute to the other. We are working long hours, many of us teaching more than we ever did before. How are we supposed to find the time for self-care?
- We are being asked to volunteer our teaching. As someone who does a significant amount of volunteer teaching, I have had so many requests to teach for free in the last few days I cannot possibly say yes to all. I have also had requests to record my class and then put it up online for everyone to access. How are we setting boundaries? We pay our bills through our teaching (and many of us have seen our outside speaking engagements cancelled). If we teach a significant number of hours for no pay, how are we going to fare? And yet – how do we say “no” without feeling bad? How do we set boundaries?
- We are balancing all different roles at the same time. We are not just teaching! Our kids, and sometimes grandkids, are home. We need to cook many more meals than before, clean more than before. We are also trying to teach when our own children are trying to learn. How can we do it all.
- Passover is around the corner. Our students want to learn more about Passover. Many are going to be holding a Seder for the first time. Some will be alone. And so our classes are even more necessary and we only have one more week to teach. Yet, we too have had our Passover plans changed and many of us who were not planning on being home for Passover, now find ourselves having to clean, prepare, shop and cook, taking many of our hours.
It is critical to consider many of these issues so that when we get to the other side of this crisis, we will be better prepared to meet the needs of the “new learner.” Because yes – I believe we will all be changed by this experience, and educators will need to understand the changes and build the future. What topics will be of most interest to these learners? How much time will they dedicate to learning? What will “community” mean to them and how do we support this community building?
If you are an educator, how are you doing? How are you handling self-care? What challenges are you dealing with? How do you envision the “future?” I hope to hear from you. The more input we have, the better feedback we can give to each other, to the organizations we work for, and to those who help fund our work. Please participate in this conversation. Email me your comments ([email protected]). I will hopefully combine our answers and follow up with an article that will help all of us understand both the challenges and the opportunities of this strange time. Together we need to become smarter and better prepared to handle the changes we will, no doubt, see in the next few months and years.
Dr. Sandra Lilienthal is an independent adult educator in South Florida. Besides her many weekly classes, she is a frequent speaker at Jewish education conferences, synagogues and other Jewish organizations. Sandra has great enthusiasm for teaching Judaism as a living religion and is a 2015 winner of the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.