Developing Dynamic Educators: Positive Results of the Education Initiative

by Dawne Bear Novicoff

This past summer, more than 73,000 Jewish youth attended summer camp to see friends and have fun. At the same time, whether or not they were always aware, they engaged in experiential Jewish learning led by dynamic and inspiring educators. This immersive environment is indicative of our understanding that Jewish learning occurs in myriad ways in a variety of settings.

However, whether at camp or school or anywhere else, effective Jewish learning is dependent on having equally as effective Jewish educators. How can teachers bring a relevant, accessible and modern Judaism to the classroom, the campus, the bunk and beyond? How can they engage and inspire the “global citizens” who are the youth and young adults of today? They need an arsenal of tools and a variety of skill sets to address the diverse needs, interests and talents of their students.

In 2008, the Jim Joseph Foundation challenged leadership from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Yeshiva University (YU) to find an area of common interest. They coalesced around a hypothesis that was, and continues to be, a key principle of the Foundation: more and better trained educators were needed to support the growing and changing field of Jewish education. And in particular, there was a need for new and dynamic educators to work with youth and young adults in a variety of settings.

To support this effort, the Foundation awarded three $15 million grants to support the development of degree, certificate and leadership programs for Jewish educators. Through the Jim Joseph Foundation Education Initiative 13 new programs were designed and launched, many of which were new models of professional development for educators working in the field. It is estimated that in 2015-16, more than 1,000 educators are expected to have received degrees or credentials in Jewish education with the support of the Foundation.

Evaluating the Initiative

Several cohorts of students and graduates now have progressed through these programs and we are beginning to learn more deeply about the Initiative. The Second Year Evaluation Report from American Institutes for Research (AIR), released last month, details accomplishments, challenges and lessons learned regarding programs for educators and education leaders. This report provides the first voices from the field, sharing personal, meaningful responses about how these new programs are shaping and advancing educators’ skills.

Over the course of the five-year grant, a report each year will document different aspects of the initiative, tracking the institutions’ progress towards stated goals. This year, the Foundation was most eager to learn about the new programs, and the educators they are developing, from the perspective of organizations and employers with whom they work. And while the evaluation covers other areas, the direct feedback from employers offers critical insight.

Employers Notice Professional Growth

Based on the diversity and reach of the Education Initiative programs, the survey included feedback from 69 employers representing day schools, camps, Hillels, synagogues and other educational institutions from around the country. AIR notes, “All employers interviewed observed substantial professional growth of their staff as a result of program participation. Most employers provided opportunities for these staff to take more active roles in decision making processes due to their employees’ program participation” (pg. 3).

Employers see firsthand that staff members, after participation in a professional development program, bring new ideas and new skills to their organization, school or other educational setting:

  • One employer, reflecting on the benefits to students, said of an employee, “This [program] has allowed him to gain a more sophisticated language in theory behind what he does, and so it causes him to think differently about the way he engages with lay leaders.” Employers also agreed that their employees have stepped up and have taken more active roles in helping to shape education programming decision making. The added value emphasized the most by employers was innovation both in organizational management and instruction (pg. 22).

Professionals Want Development Opportunities

For the professionals, numerous reasons motivate their participation in the programs. “Participants felt that the certificate and leadership programs filled a void in the field in terms of opportunities for professional development” (pg. 17), and they view professional development programs as opportunities for upward mobility and the chance to move into leadership positions. Additionally, “most program participants reported that they have been inspired by their programs to create new programs or initiatives” (pg. 3).

Value of Networking

Both employers and professionals note the value of networking offered by the programs. Each of the Education Initiative professional development programs are built around a national cohort. Educators are learning within a diverse group of educators, which enables them to move beyond their own environments and become exposed to broader world views.

  • Employers felt that the structure and networking opportunities presented by the programs were invaluable professional experiences for their employees (pg. 17).
  • Participants felt that as part of their current or previous job, they had not received enough exposure to Jewish education professionals outside of their school or organization, which limited the scope of information and resources they could tap into (pg. 12).

The Foundation is pleased to share these interim findings with the field and will continue to share data from the Education Initiative as we learn more over the next several years. We more clearly understand the ROI of these programs by learning that both employer and employee experience benefits. While the Education Initiative has numerous benchmarks for success, these learnings indicate an opportunity for deep impact in the field and for developing more educators ready to inspire, engage and educate Jewish youth in a variety of settings.

Dawne Bear Novicoff is a senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.

Cross-posted on the Jim Joseph Foundation blog. The AIR Year 2 Evaluation can be found here.