Great Teaching Takes More Than a Great Jewish Journey

By Dr. Ziva R. Hassenfeld

Many believe that being a great Jewish educator is, above all, about being a passionate and spiritual Jew. But decades of education research have shown that good teachers are made, not born. Ultimately, an inspiring Jewish journey can only take an educator so far. The best Jewish educators need to have deep knowledge of how to teach as well.

Aryeh Ben David recently argued that without the “white fire” of a teacher’s spiritual journey, the “black fire” of Jewish learning lacks intensity. This notion of teaching and Jewish studies teachers is what Jewish education scholar Alex Pomson (Pomson, Alex. “The rebbe reworked: An inquiry into the persistence of inherited traditions of teaching.” Teaching and Teacher Education 18.1 (2002): 23-34.) called “the teacher as Rebbe, the oldest and most powerful archetype of Jewish teaching.” Ben David concludes by arguing that professional development for Jewish educators should focus on cultivating their inner spiritual life.

But in research that I’ve conducted at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis, I’ve found that Jewish studies teachers already place a high priority on their own spiritual life as a key factor for success as Jewish educators. One teacher told me, “Either you’re a teacher who’s living by this stuff, or, at the very least, you have some connection to this stuff. That’s why you’re teaching this.” He paused and concluded, “My passion for Judaism just innately comes through when I’m teaching.”

To be sure, powerful role models are a key ingredient for successful Jewish education. But being a good teacher requires much more. Research on professional development has found again and again that the best teachers care about growing as practitioners. They do this by constantly reflecting on their teaching, noticing what works and doesn’t work, and trying new instructional practices. To do this work, teachers must become experts in observation and reflection, they must seek evidence, take risks, and remain open to different interpretations. A great spiritual journey just isn’t enough.

Researchers insist that teachers don’t come by these skills naturally; rather, they acquire them over the course of their careers. And these skills don’t come easily. Schools become essential partners in cultivating teachers’ growth. They must provide robust professional development programs in which teachers have opportunities to learn how to reflect on their teaching practice.

This vision of professional development goes far beyond teachers going to a one-day conference or attending a workshop offsite. The best professional development is built into the ongoing work of teaching. It is grounded in the questions and concerns that arise for teachers in the course of their everyday teaching.

The project of Jewish education needs great teachers. Yes, the character of our Jewish educators is critically important. But character cannot take the place of the professional development necessary to foster skilled, reflective practitioners. This takes time, money, and hard work. In a Jewish educational landscape severely underinvested in this kind of professional development, it’s important to stay clear about what matters most.

Dr. Ziva R. Hassenfeld is a postdoctoral fellow at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. She recently completed her doctorate at Stanford where she was a Wexner/Davidson fellow. Before beginning her doctoral work, she taught Tanakh at Gann Academy.