Tuesday, June 23, 2009

STW: Personal Reaction - Part 2

As I shared last time, my adamant negation of the belief that “all-kids-hate-religious-school” was my introduction to formal Jewish education. In the period between the time we removed our kids from one religious school and enrolled them the following year in a different school, we made the decision that I would homeschool them. My purpose was to ensure that they understood that our dissention was with the individual institution, not with Jewish education or supplemental schools. Learning would take place regardless of the venue.

As I’d prepare each week for the next week’s lessons, I met a wonderfully helpful person at the local Board of Jewish Ed, who pointed me in the right direction for resources, answered questions I had, and was extremely supportive. As time went on, we got to know each other. In addition to her job at the BJE, she was also the part-time director of a religious school. After some time passed, she asked if I’d be interested in teaching in her school, explaining that she thought I’d be a good teacher because I was willing to ask questions, search for information and try to pull things together in an age-appropriate manner. After several conversations, much thought, and a visit to her school, I decided to accept her offer.

That was the beginning of my involvement as a Jewish communal worker.

Over the course of time, I became an even better teacher. It was Elissa who taught me about educational objectives and how to measure them; about reflective practice; and – most importantly – that it’s our work that should be taken seriously, not ourselves.

I tried to integrate the lessons I’d learned from my own children:

  • that kids learn best by doing instead of sitting;
  • that variety spices things up again;
  • that transitions are difficult;
  • that a classroom should be a safe place;
  • that for most of us, hearing alone isn’t enough – we need to see, smell, touch, and taste, too!
Along the way, I continued to learn as much from my students (probably more) than they learned from me. There were transitional issues, to be sure (the “I don’t want to GO to religious school…”). However, once they crossed our threshold, for the most part, they were active and engaged (“but I don’t mind BEING there.”) In reviewing the list of characteristics that Wertheimer cites as indicative of successful schools, I see that all six of them were present in our classroom over the years: Together, my students and I
  1. developed a community
  2. took Jewish learning seriously
  3. engaged in experiential Jewish education
  4. aligned all of our efforts with our goals for the year
  5. valued ourselves
  6. regarded our families as allies (and, on my part, as clients – I was always conscious that their parents could have taken them to another school, but chose to enroll them in ours)
How do I know we were those things? Because each year, it was our practice at the end of the year to dissect what we had done, piece by piece. Because our classroom was a safe place, my students felt secure in offering honest feedback that, in turn, helped form my plans for the class following them. I still have the notes from those evaluation sessions. In reviewing them recently, I was struck anew by how many of them helped address the areas listed above.
I subsequently became a director of two different schools. At each school, we had a strong level of lay involvement and input. One program evolved into a successful one, by Wertheimer’s definition, while I was there; the other did not. What made the difference?

In one environment, the “enabling factors” – those foundation pieces that need to be in place in order for a school to be successful -- were firmed embedded in the practices of the organization. Those factors, again, are as follows:
  • a clear vision and a path on how to achieve that vision
  • a culture of collaboration and self-reflection
  • the school and the synagogue worked together – neither was isolated or detached from the other
  • lay leaders were involved cooperatively with the school and worked collaboratively with their professional staff to refine the objectives of the school.
Defining the characteristics of a successful school is important in being able to articulate why an institution is successful.

However, in my mind, the most critical part of Schools That Work is the identification of the foundation necessary in order for a program to be successful.

It answers some very basic questions about why a once-successful program sometimes becomes less successful over time or when there’s a change in leadership. It points out the difficulty of systemic change when two groups of key players (the lay leaders, and the parents) are frequently in flux. I believe that when these enabling factors are weakened or disappear, the likelihood of a school being able to maintain its innovative zest for learning becomes compromised. The school tends to slip back towards the more familiar middle-of-the-road because that’s a more comfortable place to be – for the administrators, teachers, lay leaders, and parents. I doubt that it’s more comfortable for the kids.

Next: professional implications for our schools/communities.

No comments: