By Rabbi Jim Rogozen
It is a centuries-old habit to try to reduce wisdom into short aphorisms or sound bites (“do unto others…”), and to understand or label our experience of major calamities in a similar fashion (“when the going gets tough…”).
It is no surprise, then, that as we retreat into our smaller, physical spaces, it’s tempting to conclude that our personal and professional lives have also been contracted, turned into something we might label as Tzimtzum, a world of “less than.” There is no doubt that we have all been facing challenges. We are dealing with stress, financial worries, the loss of loved ones, and a sense of disconnection. I would like to propose, however, that for those of in Jewish Education, our world has, in some ways, actually expanded, with many new windows now open.
Here is what I am seeing:
- Teachers are pushing through what were previously limitations. Their grit, resilience, adaptability – always qualities of good teachers – have been translated into educational practices beyond anything they could have imagined. For many, what had been unknown has now been learned; what had seemed too hard to learn has become regular practice. While there is definitely more stress, there is also discovery, creativity, and growth.
- Parents have a greater appreciation for teachers – their dedication, creativity, resourcefulness. While some parents want more on-task time, and some want less, parents are much more aware of the time and effort teachers devote to their children. They appreciate what it takes to engage (from afar!) students for many hours each day, and to keep learning alive and fresh.
- On the other hand, teaching that is not up to par is now more visible – to administrators and parents. This will certainly impact teacher evaluations, but it may also lead to much needed improvement.
- In the other direction, Zoom calls give teachers a more in-depth view into the lives of their students and their families – literally and figuratively. In the best of times, the challenges of managing home life differ by family, as does parenting bandwidth. As a result, teachers have always experienced inconsistent support from parents. Many teachers report that they now have more direct access into a child’s home life, whether through actual Zoom interactions, or through the “check in” calls they make to families. They see that parents need support, and that they are now more willing to open up to teachers. In most cases this has deepened and strengthened the teacher-parent relationship
- Many parents, for the first time, can see (in real time) what their children are learning, and how they are learning. They have a better sense of what school is like. In some cases, previous teacher observations about a child’s learning challenges now make sense as parents observe their child “doing school” at home. Also surprising, to teachers and parents, is that some students who had been struggling at school are now thriving with home-based learning, while some previously successful students are the ones who now have challenges. Figuring out what works, or doesn’t work, further strengthens the parent-teacher partnership, and increases a teacher’s ability to help each child succeed.
- Educators are looking at their colleagues with new eyes. The expansion of the role of “teacher” or “administrator” has affected people differently. Some have chosen (or are only able) to do their assigned tasks in ways that approximate what they did before the pandemic. Some have “pulled in” emotionally and are unable to give too much of themselves. Others, however, have opened up in beautiful ways; they’ve become friendlier, volunteered for new tasks, and have gone “above and beyond” in ways that pleasantly surprise their colleagues.
- Schools, by using online platforms, are editing and reconfiguring their programming in ways that put their core values and goals front and center. Expectations of teachers and students, scheduling practices, grading, choosing to keep or cancel standardized testing – all of these are choices that make a statement.
- In terms of programming, schools are now able to present a wider range of speakers, concerts, and multi-school events. The exposure to so many talented people enriches the lives of students and teachers. In addition, many schools are now inviting entire families to more and more programs, and they can attend! Grandparents who live far away attend weekly Kabbalat Shabbat programs, and many of them were able to participate in Yom HaShoa programs this year.
- From creating large-group events to re-imagining graduation, to seeking ways to support families emotionally, schools are looking for ways to preserve what they perceive to be their essence, or ikar – core values.
- Finally, administrators, board members and donors, are struggling to find the best ways to deal with a range of economic challenges and uncertainties. Concerns about revenues and enrollment have led to layoffs this year, and will impact decisions about next year. It is in this area that the way leaders (lay and professional) speak and act that will show their school’s core values.
In all spheres of life, not just in schools, there is a lot we can learn during difficult times. People like to point out that resiliency is not just about absorbing the blow, but how one responds to the blow. I’d like to suggest that it is also about paying attention to what was previously shaded or hidden, as well as the ability to see through new or opened windows. Rather than thinking of our shelter in place as a retreat from the normal, perhaps we should refer to it as the time of the Big Reveal. Now that parents, teachers, administrators, and students have seen each other’s humanity, vulnerability, courage, and generosity, imagine how much stronger and caring school communities will be when school buildings welcome them all back home.
Rabbi Jim Rogozen is the Director of the Center for Excellence in Early Childhood & Day School Education, the department at BJE: Builders of Jewish Education that serves the 54 Jewish Preschools and 38 Jewish Day Schools in Los Angeles.