By Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal and Erin Bouchard
We often hear, “I want my son to have a different religious school experience than I did growing up,” or “I want my daughter to like going to religious school.” These are common sentiments that synagogue lay leadership, clergy, and education staff wrestle with on a regular basis. Rabbi Emeritus Peter J. Rubinstein introduced the revolutionary idea nearly 15 years ago, to hire full-time educators for the religious school at Central Synagogue in New York City. Instead of continuing the usual model of hiring part-time teachers who have day jobs and create lesson plans on their own, they hired full-time teachers who work together as a team, and make religious school more exciting, engaging, and fun.
Central Synagogue is a large Reform Synagogue in midtown Manhattan with more than 700 students in its religious school, the Lese Center for Living Judaism (LCLJ). With the support of a small number of donors, the full-time educator program was born, and Central hasn’t looked back. While the program has improved and adapted over the years, from the number of teachers, the curriculum, the teaching philosophy, or the leadership, the constant and resounding success that has shined through is employing full-time educators.
Over the last few months, we researched the impact full-time employment has for the overall religious school experience. 93% of people said that this program had a positive impact on them as teachers, both while they were at Central and in the professional lives they lead beyond. These are the three most important learnings we found.
1. Reflection and Revision lead to growth
“A righteous man falls down seven times and gets up.” King Solomon, Proverbs, 24:16. We must not be afraid to fail. If we want to make change, then we have to try new things.
Having a full time slate of teachers allows you to test out programs and if it isn’t 100% amazing, change directions and try again to make it better. Reflection is the important part of the process, in the face of challenge learning happens.
Being a reflective practitioner, encouraging your staff to try new things, even if they aren’t perfect the first time around or even if they fail outright creates a culture of innovation and cooperation among the team.
2. Feel Free to Rethink The Budget To Spend More On Staff and Less On Other Things
Investing in your staff will trickle down to your families and students. If you have a choice, pay teachers more, provide professional development, and support staff. Author and famously successful restaurateur Danny Meyer wrote in his book, Setting the Table, that his set of priorities for his businesses is known as “Enlightened Hospitality.” It’s core principle is that his community, his staff, comes first; by taking care of them first, the atmosphere and morale will be above par, and, therefore, the guests will have a better experience. He states, “Invest in your community, and the rising tide will lift all boats.”
Central’s Education Department has followed very similar guidance. Not only offering competitive salaries, but also creating and fostering a fun and engaging work environment that has led to a team of committed teachers who want to be productive and do their best. One former teacher recognized that “it was the most fun job” she has ever had, while another said, “it brought out the very best work in me.” Working at Central showed another teacher “the importance of workplace culture and passion.”
“The organization’s leaders are there for you, to help you succeed, because they care and because your success helps move the mission forward.” Another teacher shared that the support she and her colleagues felt made them feel they were in it together. Ultimately, students and parents can tell when teachers enjoy working with each other. When a teacher is happy to be in the building and feels supported inside and outside of the classroom, it can be seen and felt.
3. Build Team
Many synagogues’ religious school teachers meet only when they’re teaching. They come from different backgrounds, they have different day-jobs, and they’re focused on their own grade-levels. However, a group of part-time teachers can still feel like a team. We have found one of the keys to our teachers being a team is the emotional support and appreciation that they feel from their supervisors and colleagues. This type of support doesn’t cost any money. Many of our respondents noted that they looked up to people they worked with and considered them role models and mentors.
Emotional support and appreciation also means taking an interest in the teacher as a person. “I remember feeling very supported and appreciated,” a teacher noted in regard to her supervisor’s interest in her hours outside of her work at Central. When one teacher was nearing the end of her time at Central, she knew she could reach out to anyone for advice or guidance; “I met with all pulpit clergy about HUC and then some. I think that’s representative of the organization. People knew I was going to be leaving and they were still excited to help me in any way they could.”
Teachers recalled how this support meant that they could try new things, step outside the box, and trust that they were never alone. One teacher noted that “it was clear that the leadership was going to put whatever energy it was going to take to make sure the individual and the team were going to be successful.” Another teacher reminisced about the trust put in her to lead a large program and how that made her feel. She said that it “really formed [her] deep love and respect for Central.”
Some practical ways synagogue religious schools can build a team is by carving out some time before school for a team breakfast or team lunch. Or, even, canceling religious school and doing team building can be worth the time. Having teachers work together to plan an all-school event can also be quite useful. Before the school year begins, instead of just asking each person to introduce himself or herself, plan activities that will get them working together as a team. Also, ask the teachers to share a secret or special skill they have and how to use it or develop it over time.
While Central Synagogue might look completely different from your synagogue, we believe that these are things that can be useful to any organization’s religious school or any organization looking to build a team. Essentially, having a cohesive teaching team and a fun and engaging work environment, taking risks, and showing appreciation and support for your staff can have an enormous impact on the work that they do.
Rabbi Rebecca Rosenthal is the Director of Youth and Family Education at Central Synagogue in New York City.
Erin Bouchard is a former full time educator and family engagement director at Central and now lives in Colorado with her family.