“Is It a Good Cohort?”
Building Intentional Communities

By Sue Bojdak

“What can you tell me about the other people in the cohort?” A bolder version, informed by greater chutzpah or not-so-great past experiences, usually includes the awkward preamble. “I’m not exactly sure how to ask this, but … I mean, what’s the background of the other participants?” Because after we’ve covered program content and sorted through logistics and discussed whether we agree this program seems like a good fit, what potential participants I’ve talked with really want to know is, “Will I like the others?” “Are these my people?”

Making a commitment to an extended professional development program like MTEI (Mandel Teacher Educator Institute) is no small thing. It’s time and money and effort and getting the support of colleagues to fill in for us. We all know that no matter how knowledgeable and talented the faculty, if the people we are learning with aren’t a good fit for us, our learning will suffer. We will suffer. So how do you build a good cohort?

At MTEI we build a cohort of learners every two years. We begin the way we teach, by practicing our core principles starting with Intentional Creation of Community. We believe that relational environments foster learning. So from the first phone call or the first moment of chit chat in the hallway at a conference, we begin building a relationship. Ours is an outreach of conversation, of connection. We don’t just want to tell you about our program or put a brochure in your hand, we want you to tell us about you, about your work, about yourself as a learner. We want to know who you are. In this conversation, we put into practice another of our core principles How We Talk Matters, which is to say how we listen to each other talk matters. Practicing the skills of deep listening, encouraging your voice, honoring your narrative gives us a chance to build trust, deepen relationships, and begin to shape our learning community before you have even joined it.

In these conversations, we look for connections. We listen for how MTEI might be the right fit for you and your learning community, or for how we don’t fit together, at least not right now. And if now is not the time, we leave the door open, because maybe two years from now will be the right time. Relationships happen over time, and we are invested in your growth as a Jewish educational leader over time. At MTEI we take our time. We like to slow down the process just like we prefer to slow down learning and give it the time it needs, the time it deserves. Out of a series of attentive conversations, the right people for the cohort emerge.

Who has emerged to make up MTEI Cohort 9 which began its work this November? MTEI Cohort 9 are educators working in communities including Portland, OR and Charlotte, NC, Austin, TX and Detroit, MI, Los Angeles and New York. They are congregational educators at synagogues with hundreds of students and shuls with less than sixty. They are principals of upper schools and lower schools, curriculum specialists, and department chairs in pluralistic and orthodox day schools. They are leading JCC preschools and Federation education programs. They are doctoral candidates and special education consultants. They all have advanced degrees in Jewish Studies or Education, or both, except one who has an MS in Chemistry. Some are rabbis or cantors. They were raised in diverse spaces such as Des Moines and St. Louis, Turkey and Mexico City, Skokie, IL, Brooklyn, and the San Francisco Bay Area. They represent a broad spectrum of Jewish practice and bring experience teaching mussar, wellness, ceramics, music therapy and Native American culture.

They are a good cohort, bringing rich, diverse experiences and enthusiasm for learning. And they will make themselves into an great cohort. Because at MTEI we know that Teachers Learn and Learners Teach. As faculty and participants share our diverse perspectives and interpretations with each other, we all teach as we learn. As we each invest in our relationships with one another, taking intellectual and personal risks, practicing respectfully challenging one another’s ideas, and wrestling together with Jewish texts and enduring challenges in education, we learn together. And learning together fosters the development of that intentional community we set out to create from our first point of contact.

As fabulous as Cohort 9 is on the road to becoming, Cohort 10 will also be powerful, generative, and passionate, because it will be built around these same principles. If you are a Jewish educational leader working in a congregation, day school, early childhood program or other Jewish educational setting, we hope you’ll consider joining MTEI Cohort 10, which will launch in November 2021. If you would like to begin that conversation today, contact me at smbojdak@gmail.com and let’s start our relationship.

Sue Bojdak is the Leader of MTEI Recruitment. She is also the Director of Education at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and an MTEI graduate.