Igniting the Flame for Jewish Educators
By Leah Nadich Meir
What are your Hanukkah lighting preferences? Beeswax candles? Blue and white? Multicolor? Or do you go with olive oil in glass containers? Regardless of your aesthetic preference, you always start off with one candle, lit by one Shamash. Then you add a candle (or olive oil container) each night, again lit with that single Shamash, with your Hanukkiah burning a bit more brightly every night. Then there’s that eighth night, when the flames illuminate the winter darkness and maybe even warm up the room a bit.
Let’s look into these Hanukkah flames to illuminate some valuable lessons we’ve learned at The AVI CHAI Foundation about how Jewish educators (or any educators, for that matter) are like Hanukkah candles – how they learn best, how they continue to enhance their leadership and, in turn, the learning of their students:
- Every candle needs a flame to light it: Every educator, no matter how learned, needs that additional “spark” that comes from another person. What’s even better is a spark ignited by multiple people with exciting ideas, new perspectives and valuable knowledge. In other words: professional development. Top leaders, who are responsible for the success of an entire school, often feel very lonely. The same can be true of teachers, who can feel isolated within their classrooms, wondering how their colleagues in other schools, or even in the classroom next door, are handling the same challenges that they’re facing. Bishvil Ha-Ivrit, a content-rich interactive Hebrew language program, brings Hebrew language teachers in grades 6-12 together for intensive training at Hebrew College in Boston, provided by experts from the Center for Educational Technology. Learning together opens their eyes to new developments in language learning and ignites collegial relationships that continue long after their time together has ended.
- You don’t need to light all the candles at once: Our tradition tells us to light them one at a time, even as we look forward to the next night when another one will be added. It’s fine to be ambitious and want to bring change to an entire school, whether in bringing outcomes-based learning and standards to every subject or in having all Judaic subjects taught in Hebrew. But first start small: learn, think, tweak … and then take the next step. The Legacy Heritage Instructional Leadership Institute (formerly the Jewish Day School Standards and Benchmarks Project) at the Davidson School of the Jewish Theological Seminary developed standards and benchmarks for the study of only one subject: Tanakh (Bible). It provided intensive professional training for Judaic studies heads and faculty members for about ten years before doing the same for the study of Rabbinics. Now that the 14th cohort of schools is immersed in the program, the outcomes-based approach has become central to the discourse about text learning in Jewish day schools.
- The light and warmth of the flames increase over time: We need those eight days to reach the full brilliant light that fills our homes when the entire Hanukkiah is lit. We barely notice the difference when another light is kindled each evening, but when all eight are finally shining, we realize how much has changed since that first day! Don’t expect the change to happen on the first day, in the first week or even the first year. Real learning and real change need time to take hold. Keep pushing forward, but be patient. The Judaic studies teachers in the four week Hebrew language Ivriyon program at the Jewish Theological Seminary start off unsteady and hesitant, but finish up speaking Hebrew a lot more confidently and fluently!
- The flames in the Hanukkiah glow close to one another, but they remain separate: Each educator, each class, each school is unique, and rightly so. Effective leadership training and professional development introduce the big ideas and then allow them to be adapted to the goals and needs of each educator and school. That’s how individuals and schools representing such diversity – in religious orientation, student population and educational approach – have been able to learn together and continue learning afterward through the benefits of technology. The Jewish Educators’ Institute at the Hadar Institute gathers teachers from a variety of schools for a five-day Beit Midrash experience and introduction to the Pedagogy of Partnership approach. Participants are then coached through the year as they adapt the approach to their own classrooms. Each light shines in its own special way, but more brightly together.
As you light that one candle on the first night of Hanukkah, keep in mind what Beit Hillel (the school of Hillel) instructed: starting with one candle and increasing the light each night – ma’alin bakodesh – increases the holiness from day to day. And the same can be said of how our Jewish educational professionals add to their flames of knowledge, skill and professional enrichment. From a small glow to a bright collective light.
Ma’alin Bakodesh – their task and their students’ learning become ever more sacred.
Hag Urim Sameah
Leah Nadich Meir is a Program Officer at The AVI CHAI Foundation.