By Alex Pomson and Frayda Gonshor Cohen
One of the more positive Jewish communal stories at this time of communal disruption is of how hundreds of Jewish day schools, globally, have mobilized so that students can continue their education via distance learning platforms. We do not intend to re-tell the story of this important effort, nor do we propose to reflect on the outcomes created for teachers, students and students’ families. It is too early to say. We don’t yet have enough systematically collected data about these phenomena.
We turn, instead, to data gathered during easier times, just two years ago. We offer a research-informed perspective on the extent to which the shift to virtual schooling challenges the most distinctive feature – call it the beating heart – of day school education: its relational core. Appreciating the present upheaval in such terms can help educators focus on what is most important when there are so many claims on their attention.
CASJE, the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education, housed at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, commissioned a study of leadership in Jewish day schools (with the support of the AVI CHAI Foundation and the Berman Family Foundation), conducted in 2017-2018. Over the past year, the team at Rosov Consulting has worked with CASJE to conduct a secondary analysis of the data gathered. The study involved surveys of teachers and students, and both interviews and surveys of professional leadership in schools. Secondary analysis has provided a chance to explore issues besides leadership.
In all of its strands, the study exposed just how much day school education is enriched by the interpersonal relationships of its main players – students, teachers, school leaders and parents. In fact, the study revealed how these relationships function as both means and ends. In their most successful renditions, these relationships both nurture and come to serve as expressions of covenantal community, what one might call an ultimate purpose of day school education.
To explain further: A study of time-use among Division Heads (second-in-command leaders in schools) revealed how in day schools (unlike public schools) these people function less as instructional leaders and more as harbor pilots. Through their conversations with parents, teachers and students, through their own personal modelling and by talking about the values at the heart of their schools, these leaders give teachers a sense of direction and they give students a sense of higher purpose. Through endless rounds of conversations and personal interactions, they help steer schools away from the rocks toward open water.
A survey of teachers, and an investigation of teacher satisfaction, revealed that those who work in day schools exhibit high levels of satisfaction with their work, at levels similar to their public education peers. It showed too how the greatest sources of teacher satisfaction are associated on the one hand with the joys and challenges that derive from being with students in the classroom, and on the other from supervision by professional leaders who convey and cultivate a vision for their schools.
A survey of student perspectives on school climate makes plain that the older students are, the more they associate a positive climate in their schools with the personal relationships they form with their peers and with the personal attention from and interaction with their teachers. For students, these relationships are the special sauce that accounts for why so few of them would prefer to go school elsewhere.
Woven together, these three research strands make it clear how so much of what teachers and students value about their day schools can be traced back to the quality of their relationships in the classroom and, really, in every other corner of their schools. This is a sobering insight when right now school is experienced most commonly through the medium of a computer screen.
Of course, we might want to devote as much as possible of that screen time to serious learning, to stretching students academically. These studies suggest it is no less important to use the time to ensure that the blood continues to reach the relational heart of schools. When our schools are physically dispersed, we should make especially sure to mobilize the undoubted potential of technology to continue nurturing these essential relationships.
Alex Pomson, PhD, is Principal and Managing Director of Rosov Consulting. Frayda Gonshor Cohen, EdD, is a Senior Project Leader at Rosov Consulting.