Professional Development: A Call to Action

By Dana Sheanin and Jenni Mangel

The 2016 Leading Edge study “Are Jewish Organizations Great Places to Work?” identifies five factors of great workplaces. One of these is talent development: “Leading places to work recognize that professionals crave opportunities to advance their knowledge, skill sets and abilities. Employees want to feel that their employer invests in them and cares about their future; that there is a plan for their growth and development; and that their advancement is considered important to the organization.” Yet when did you last participate in a truly impactful professional development program?

Many studies over several decades demonstrate the pivotal role professional development plays in improving the quality of teaching and learning – and thus in the construction of both the Jewish present and the Jewish future. Those of us who commit our work hours, leisure time, or both to exposing learners of any age to Jewish wisdom appreciate the nourishment that comes from professional development even without this empirical data. We wrestle regularly with what opportunities to accept and which to decline. We calculate how many hours remain in our week, how many items languish on our do-list, and whether or not we can afford to invest in ourselves. Often we feel unable to carve out time for all but the lowest barrier programs – those which may briefly inspire us, but do not provide the scaffolding or content depth required to transform professional practice. When we do choose to participate, we usually do so because we know the organizer, are drawn to meet the presenter or simply want the chance to step away from the daily routine of our work life to be inspired by colleagues.

Enabling educators to thrive as learners and as teachers is at the core of Jewish LearningWorks’ mission. During our 2017 strategic planning process, we conducted our first annual Bay Area Teacher/Educator survey – facilitated by our partners at Rosov Consulting. We asked teachers and educational leaders in diverse settings what they seek from professional development, and what prevents them from finding it. We expected to hear that educators feel discouraged from participation in professional development by organizational leadership. To the contrary, we found that lack of supervisor’s support was identified by less than 5% of survey participants as a deterrent. (Bay Area Teacher/Educator Survey, Rosov Consulting, internal document) Instead time (85%) and location (50%) were identified as the biggest impediments to participation. Importantly, neither access nor quality were perceived barriers. Instead we found 70% of survey respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the number of training opportunities offered to them, and 86% were satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of the training they had received. You can learn more about our survey here.

These responses led us to wonder whether lack of time differs materially from lack of supervisor support. If one’s job is too big – often the case in the Jewish world – it is easy to presume that the greater good is getting the job done. Given evidence that professional learning is indeed valued by individuals we considered what might be required at the organizational level to remove the obstacles standing in their way. As our colleagues at Leading Edge asked, what will it take “to carve meaningful space and time out of employee’s jobs” for professional learning? In Jewish organizations of all types, it is often the case that managers care about their employees’ advancement, but lack a real “plan for growth and development.” Instead, professionals stretched thin with programming obligations cannot prioritize staff development plans backed by the commitment of time and money to carry them out.

As a result, many of us go it alone. In our digital age we are presented with innumerable opportunities to learn asynchronously with our colleagues via professional social networks, podcasts, TED or ELI talks or by reading relevant books and articles. However, such isolated learning experiences are insufficient to enhance our fundamentally relationship-based work.

In “Can you hear me now? Why Face to Face Interactions Still Matter in the Modern Age” practitioners describe Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies professional development work with teen educators. The in-person interactions CJP creates for the youth professionals are described as “different than learning a specific new approach or skill. These interactions offer support and foster connections that lead to professional success and positive feelings about one’s choice of work.” Though we live in a world that appears effortlessly virtual, we know intuitively that participation in face to face learning enriches our experience and keeps us engaged in our work.

Suggestions for Action

If Jewish organizations are truly committed to helping educators find inspiration amidst a community of adult learners, how might they demonstrate this value? We offer the following suggestions for organizational leaders to consider:

1. Craft a professional learning plan for your staff team(s).

Deliberately determine what knowledge or skills individuals or groups need to learn and prioritize opportunities to satisfy those needs. Ensure face to face learning time is part of your professional learning plan and cultivate relationships between and among educators.

2. Bring the learning home.

Create an organizational structure that enables professionals to share with colleagues? what was learned at a training. Use these share outs as tools to build and reinforce a culture of learning, relationship, reflection, experimentation and growth.

3. Budget for professional learning.

Commit to incrementally increasing organizational budget lines for professional development to not only enable professionals to pay registration fees, but also to participate on paid time. Invest in educators by reversing the trend in which staff development is one of the first places cut when dollars are tight.

4. Budget for administrative support.

Educators in leadership positions need reliable administrative support to enable them to step away to participate in professional development with focused attention.

5. Budget for instructional support.

Educational programs need dedicated budgets for substitutes to cover classes while teachers have the opportunity to further their own study. This common practice in secular schools allows teachers to model the value of lifelong learning to their students.

6. Encourage leadership and accountability from board members.

Key decision makers should regularly inquire as to how the organization is supporting its staff to continue learning and improving their practice. Encourage lay leaders who are unsure about what is learned at a professional learning opportunity, how it translates back to the institution, how a school director spends her days or how much prep-time a teacher dedicates to a class, to get to know these educators and to ask them to share stories of their day-to-day activity and its value.

Traditional chevruta (paired) study has endured for a reason. In our virtual and hurried world, opportunities to connect with those who inspire us are increasingly rare in both our personal and professional lives and, we believe increasingly important. As we consider the professional development opportunities that have mattered most to us, and those we labor to create, the relationships are always at the center. If our communal organizations truly commit to providing high quality, in-person learning opportunities we will surely all benefit from the wellspring of wisdom, inspiration and companionship that makes transformational learning possible.

Dana Sheanin MSW, MAJCS, is the Chief Learning Officer at Jewish LearningWorks. She is a lifelong devotee of professional learning and capacity building and is honored to serve the community of Jewish professionals in the Greater Bay Area.

Jenni Mangel is the Senior Educator at Jewish LearningWorks. Her capacity building work with educators reflects a commitment to connect learning, community involvement, and leadership with personal and spiritual development.