By Maxine Berman
This year, I have had the privilege and pleasure of student teaching for the eighth grade at Schechter Manhattan under the supervision of its Hebrew and Jewish Studies coordinator, Ruth Servi. Pre-pandemic, I would rush to the building by 8:00 a.m., drop into various middle school classes, and check in with students in the hallways. The Friday after Purim, school life was suddenly an all-staff meeting Zoom meeting where the school’s leadership laid out how, in just two working days, Schechter Manhattan would become a fully functioning virtual school.
At the time, this rapid shift didn’t surprise me. Schechter Manhattan is intensely dedicated to the best interests of each individual student, and in this chaotic moment, the way to serve those best interests was to replicate the stabilizing effects of structured school life. The most important thing was to make students feel safe and seen as their normally varied lives narrowed down to their families’ homes. The last day of school was a Thursday. On Monday, every grade had an orientation meeting with their teachers, and by Tuesday, a full schedule was in effect.
I student teach on Tuesdays and Fridays. I never lost a day of contact with the school – I always had a purpose and an opportunity to contribute, whether that was participating in a planning meeting on our transition day or returning to my normal rounds of helping students with their work. The school gave me stability and structure just like it gave to the students. And I wasn’t surprised. Teachers consistently went above and beyond to support their students through every problem they might have, and in turn administrators worked hard to support the teachers in this often very difficult task. Our administration had the foresight to begin planning Schechter Manhattan’s move to online learning several weeks before we had to close, and so we were able to transition over smoothly, and to continue adding to our virtual school offerings.
Today at Schechter Manhattan, students learn in hevruta and go to gym class and present their exhibition projects online. Teachers actively incorporate our current circumstances into their lessons, whether that be a serious discussion in Humanities about how race and economics affect the course of the pandemic or the new theme of the annual STEAM Fest, which is now centered around innovative ways to help society thrive in this period of social distancing. Everywhere, there is head-on acknowledgement of our changed lives, but equally full-throated conviction that we will make the best of them and continue our life in community. The first virtual Kabbalat Shabbat featured different school families leading parts of the tefillah, an opportunity we could not have had in our school building. Our students recently participated in a national webinar for Yom Ha’atzmaut with the Israeli ambassador, a new type of program we could not have given them before. This is not what we wanted, but we fight hard not to stew in that, because the students always come first, and the students need our best.
I have another month of student teaching left. I am terribly sad that I will not see my students or mentors in person again. But I am so grateful that I always had a purpose and that I always had connection, and I am deeply inspired by the power of child-centered learning. That ideal, which Schechter Manhattan prizes so highly and executes so well, is the driving force behind our reassembly into virtual school, and I will miss it over the summer, just as much as I miss running into students in the hall.
Maxine Berman will graduate in May from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education with a master’s degree in Day School Teaching and from the Gershon Kekst Graduate School with a master’s degree in Talmud and Rabbinics. She is a junior faculty member at Schechter Manhattan.
This is the first in a series of articles published by graduate-level students at The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education. The student authors focus on their experiences as Jewish educators as they balance being both the student and teacher during this extraordinary and unprecedented time.