The Jewish Education Olde Thyme Radio Hour

As part of my ongoing attempt to practice what I preach, I recently participated in what I (we) hope will be just the first in a regular podcast.  You will see quietly clearly that it was a first!  🙂  As part of our debrief, we would love feedback, which you can provide here on my blog or on the ELI on Air YouTube channel itself.

We have great plans for future podcasts that include guests and more voices from the field…stay tuned for more information.

Enjoy!

When God’s “Breath of Life” is Snuffed Out

God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and he became a living soul – Genesis 2:7

I was already contemplating how and whether to step into the emotional minefield of the breath-of-lifeMichael Brown case when news of the grand jury’s decision not to indict in the Eric Garner case broke this week.  And now…

I am not an expert in anything related to this and so I wonder what, if anything, I have to contribute to the conversation.  I am a Jewish educator.  I work with Jewish day schools and do my best to help them they be the best schools they can be.  Is there something I can say or offer that will help them be the best they can be in how they choose to address what is going on in our country right now?  Our schools are led by talented and bright professionals and lay leaders who in this day and age have access to a myriad of resources. Sure, I might be aware of one or two they are not and could help by making them available, but it would be hubris to think that I have an answer to address this that they don’t or that they couldn’t easily find.  And yet…

The Spirit of God has made me and the breath of the Almighty has given me life – Job 33:4

Saying nothing at all doesn’t feel right either.  To say nothing would suggest that I have no stake in this issue, that it neither impacts me nor is incumbent upon me to participate in. Even, if I am unclear as to what “participation” ought to be.  As a citizen and as an educator, I do have a stake, I am impacted and I believe it is incumbent upon me to participate.  And I will, like many others, have to struggle to figure out what participation looks like because I am unwilling to remain forever a bystander.  Are we our brother’s keeper?  What does that keeping look like today?  And so…

All the while my breath is in me, the Spirit of God in my nostrils – Job 27:3

Typically when I prepare to write a blog post, I do a little bit of research. I am very rarely, if ever, writing about something that someone else smarter or more experienced hasn’t already discussed elsewhere. But in light of the onslaught of columns and opinions, I wanted to inoculate myself from outside information and speak purely from the heart about what role I believe all schools, and Jewish day schools in particular, should play in educating our students to appreciate and exercise their civic responsibility as members of a democratic society.

I have lived and worked in so-called “red” and “blue” states and I recognize how passionate people are.  I appreciate how emotionally-laden the conversation can become. It is no surprise with the stakes so high that people can become extremely sensitive. Politics can also be personal and defenses automatically are raised.  Watching the discourse fly back and forth on Facebook or Twitter, even with people I know well, can sometimes be disconcerting.  It doesn’t take much for a conversation to veer off course into unkind territory.  And, thus…

Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live. – Ezekiel 37:5

Our responsibility as schools seem simple, straightforward and entirely non-controversial. We should inform our students as to the facts.  We should educate our students as to how our political system works to effect meaningful change. We should teach them the history of American politics. We should instill in them the desire to participate fully in the political process and to proudly exercise their right to vote. We should encourage them to seek truth so that their beliefs and attitudes about how government should work (one of the definitions of “politics”) are rooted in objective reality.  They should learn to be respectful of differing opinions and to always keep an open mind.  I do not believe that we are here to promote a political ideology.  Our students should be largely, if not entirely, unaware of a teacher’s personal political leanings.  We respect that our families represent the full spectrum of political viewpoints.

For me, as an educator, the most difficult trend in political discourse, which impacts our ability to help students “seek truth” is the seeming inability to agree on an objective truth – about just about anything.  This is particularly challenging in schools – like ours – where the ability to develop critical thinking skills is amongst our highest responsibilities.  Facts are facts and opinions are opinions.  Or at least they used to be…

As facts themselves have been called into question, politicized, and debated, it makes it more challenging for schools to play their proper roles.  We want to provide students with the tools and skills they need to discern truth from fiction, fact from opinion.  Armed with facts, they can then form informed opinions.  When we cannot collectively point to a fact and call it “fact”, any hope for intelligent debate fades away.  When we cannot collectively watch a video and agree about what we are seeing, confidence in the system is undermined.  What is a school (or society) to do?

For North American Jewish day schools, current events provide a powerful opportunity to demonstrate how to have complicated and important conversations in accord with our highest values.  We are all made in God’s image, regardless of political affiliation.  At our schools, we will remind our students of that fact while encouraging their informed opinions.

To stay on the sidelines for fear of political correctness would be an abnegation of our responsibility.  So all we can do is our best.  We try to live up to our ideals.  We teach facts. We provide respectful space for opinions.  We encourage civic participation.  We acknowledge that when one of us cannot speak, then none of us can speak.  When one of us cannot vote, then none of us can vote.  And as we learned this week…when one of us cannot breathe, the none of us can easily draw a breath.

For we are all made in the image of “the God in whose hand they breath is in” (Daniel 5:23).

Reflections on the Census: Size Matters

1871-schoolhouse-626265-mSmallness is embedded in the Jewish day school world, the inevitable consequence of geographic and denominational diversity.  For each of the four censuses, approximately 40% of day schools have less than 100 students.  Smallness is self-perpetuating because a small school has a limited curriculum and limited facilities, and this feeds the perception in homes of marginal religiosity that it is preferable to send their children to public school that are tuition-free and have a substantially wider range of educational offerings and extracurricular activities.

– Marvin Schick, A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States – 2013-14 (The Avi Chai Foundation, 2014)

There were very few surprises (in my opinion) to what came out this week in the census of Jewish day schools.  That doesn’t render the situation any less sober, however.  The data from the census matches with our (Schechter’s) data with regard to small schools.  We can spend hours and hours debating the merits of varying affiliations for small, non-Orthodox Jewish day schools.  (In fact, we have!)  But in some ways the truth is both more simple and more challenging: Large schools in large Jewish communities are doing well.  Small schools in small Jewish communities are struggling.

That’s the story.

I know this firsthand having been a head of two small (let’s redefine “small” here to being less than 150 students, in which case, the percentage climbs well over 50%) Jewish day schools.  I know the challenges, the frustrations, and – sometimes – the successes.  In small schools, you sometimes feel like Sisyphus, but now with two conjoined boulders of “enrollment” and “fundraising” that you keep trying push up that hill – with a razor-thin margin of error that larger schools just can’t understand.

I remember my first or second summer in Jacksonville when, due to the economy, we had three families move out of town.  Three families.  Not a big deal right?  Well, those three families paid full tuition on their 11 children.  Do you know how big a hit to enrollment and budget 11 full-pay students is in a school of 130?  To live and die on each child, on each donation, on each Federation campaign, on each Federation allocation meeting, that’s life in a small school.  To be doing well by percentage (of Jewish families from the community enrolled, of parents contributing to the annual campaign, etc.), but being on the brink by reality (it costs a lot of money to run a good school), that’s life in a small community.

I know this firsthand, now, as the head of a network with a preponderance of smaller schools.  I receive the requests for support.  I see the impact on the dedicated professionals and committed parents.  I hear the stories of triumph and despair.  I feel the joy of intimate Kabbalat Shabbat and the power of community small schools provide.  I meet the families whose lives have forever changed through their participation in the Jewish life of small schools.  I meet the families whose lives have forever changed by the closure of their small school.

The economics of the ecosystem in the Jewish day school world at present create a situation where the resources available to help schools are too cost prohibitive to make available to the exact schools who need them the most.  And so schools who are doing well are provided with a path towards doing even better…and schools who are struggling are kept on a path towards a destination unknown.

It isn’t for lack of effort, by the way.  In the same way that it just costs a lot of money to run a “good” school…it costs a lot of money to provide schools with “good” resources.  I see this every day.  We do not lack the knowhow (or more accurately, we do possess some knowhow) or the desire.  We do lack the means.  The foundations can only fund so much, the networks can only fund so much, the program providers can only charge so little, and the schools only have what they have to contribute.

It can feel at times like we are chasing our tails while our schools sit by and struggle to make do with less and less.

We can do better.

We have to do better because the future of our schools and with them, our people, depends on it.

What will it take?

A vision based by research and funding unlike that which we have ever produced would be a good beginning.

We don’t lack for vision.  Or visions.  And there has been some (a little) research.  But in many ways we continue to operate on faith.  Here is how I expressed it as the head of small school back in 2011:

With increased competition from Hebrew charter schools, independent schools, and suburban public schools AND a perilous economy – we have to brand Jewish day schools as being the kind of school most likely to provide a high-quality learning experience – that we are the future of SECULAR education because we are JEWISH.

Totally flips the script on prospective parents. “Too Jewish?”  No such thing.  Parents looking for excellence in secular education should be more concerned with “Jewish enough?”

To be financially sustainable really only requires two consistent streams of revenue: tuition and fundraising.  You can only increase tuition revenue by adding students. You can only add students if you have a great product.  And I absolutely believe this to be the case.  But as a philosophical concept, it doesn’t really help.  Because all I’ve done is suggest that if you want your school to be really successful it should be a really good school.

You don’t need me to point that out.

No you don’t.

If you don’t believe there is an answer it is hard to keep going.  Fear comes often from a place where you feel you have no control.  If I can just do the right thing, the right result will follow.  If I just make my school good enough, people will come and donors will give.

Won’t they?

How do you know?

What if they don’t?

What if we have great schools and people still don’t want to come?  What if the permanent costs for sustaining excellent small Jewish day schools cannot be supported by the communities who need them most?

This is an issue beyond network and beyond politics.  This will require all the collective wisdom and capital that can be mustered.  This is why Schechter is working so hard to specifically meet the needs of small schools.  This is why I am so pleased to see this year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference theme of “Systems Intelligence” and why I am thrilled that the NAJDSC will have sessions that explicitly focus on meeting the needs of small schools.  This is why I am so pleased to work with such great colleagues at other networks, foundations, agencies and organizations who are equally committed to getting it right.  This is why I have optimism despite the data.

We are committed to working together with our colleagues at other networks and with funders to address the needs of our small schools.  In order to be a system not of “have’s” and “have-not’s”, but of “have’s” and “soon-to-have’s”, we are going to need all the intelligence that’s available.

Let’s get to work.

The Transparency Files: What does a network head do all day?

Ssdsa_org_-_Calendar

We have a saying here at Schechter: “If you really want to know what we value most, you only have to look in two places – the calendar and the budget.”

And it is true; there are no more valuable resources than our time and our money. How we decide to allocate them is, therefore, the truest test of our values.  All the rest is commentary, as they say…

Or, to get at it another way, my younger daughter, Maytal (6), asked me the other day, “Do you just sit at your desk all day looking at your computer?”

 

Now that I am at about the 1/4-year mark of my first year as Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network, I think it is a reasonable and useful question to ask: What exactly does the head of a network of schools do and are those things the best and most useful allocation of time for those schools or the field?

The first part of the question is pretty easy to answer, and I will attempt to transparently quantify and qualify how I’ve been spending my time.  The second question is somewhat a matter of opinion, and although I will share mine, yours might be of even greater value.

That pixellated calendar above is actually a screenshot of my calendar for this week – the first full week of work those of us in the Jewish world have had in a while.  I don’t know (yet) if this is a typical (non-travel) week for me, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it is.  Let’s also base the the percentages on a 40-hour work week, knowing that no one actually works that amount of time.  Better a straw man to poke at than a pile of straw.

So, let’s see how the numbers stack up for this week:

20141022085135Let’s start with how I define my terms:

  • Staff Meetings: These are any meetings that take place with different constellations of Schechter professional staff.  It could be a full staff meeting (weekly) or scheduled meetings with members of the professional staff to discuss and work on projects (EduPlanet21, edJEWcon, etc.).
  • School Consults: This includes conversations with either the head and/or board chair of a member school.
  • Thought Leadership: This includes activities that further the cause of participating in thought leadership for the field, such as writing articles, blogging or engaging in social media for the sake of providing resources or facilitating conversations.
  • New Business Development: This includes all activities that could lead to “new business” for the network – projects, initiatives, pilots, opportunities, etc. – that could result in new activities for the network and/or the schools.
  • Placement: Working with both schools and heads engaged in the search process.
  • Foundations: This includes reporting on current projects, grant writing for new projects and all the stewardship thereof.
  • Intra-Network Meetings: This includes all meetings and conversations that take place between the networks and agencies who service the field on current or potential collaborations.  This year, of course, it includes work on the upcoming North American Jewish Day School Conference.
  • Correspondance: Keeping up with email and phone calls!
  • Board Development: All communication and planning for the development of our lay board.
  • Fundraising: Raising money for the network and its schools.
  • Professional Development: Making sure I continue to grow as a leader.
  • Supervision: Making sure I facilitate the growth of others.
  • Miscellaneous: Whatever didn’t make a category.

So.  That’s what the week of October 20th, 2014 looks like for me.

Again, leaving aside what weeks of travel look like (it will be a busy November!) and whether this one week is truly representative of the rest…is this a good use of my time?

You would have to fold in the rest of the professional team, compare and contrast to our strategic plan, etc., to really give a scientific answer, but my read of it includes the following observations:

  • These feel like the correct categories of activity for the head of a network of schools.
  • Considering where Schechter is in its rebirth, I am torn between a variety of activities that all feel critically important  – helping to build a board, helping to execute a development plan for long-term sustainability, responding directly to the needs of schools, developing and shepherding new projects and initiatives for the schools and the field, and learning a lot more about the schools and the field.  I could and should spend all my time on all of those…
  • This is a great time to be Schechter!  I am extremely proud of our team, our schools and our stakeholders…what we have managed to do in only four months of operating at full strength is extraordinary and hopefully a harbinger of what is to come.
  • Helping to plan a conference with “systems intelligence” at the heart comes at the right time for us!  It creates lots of good energy when the different oars of your work manage to steer you in the same direction.  That is definitely the case for Schechter.

Why share this publicly?

Transparency.  Accountability.  Reflective Practice.

You have a right to know how I spend my time.  I want you to know.  And I want to learn from you…

…so feel free to comment or contact me directly.  Upcoming “Transparency Files” will examine our budget (and budgeting process), what it means when we visit a community and seasonal self-evaluations.

In the meanwhile, my schedule is calling me to next activity!

Studying With Auggie

Like a lot of people – particularly educators – I read and was touched by Wonder.  The 20128290048 bestseller by  R. J. Palico has inspired schools and parents to take a hard look at themselves and take the moral litmus test that lies at the heart of the book:

How would we respond if Auggie showed up tomorrow?

As a school leader, the question was, “Is my school a place where Auggie would feel safe and loved?  Would he succeed here?”

Gross Schechter Skypes with real-life "Auggie" Gabriel Hafter.
Gross Schechter Skypes with WonderKid Gabriel Hafter.

This past week, I was re-introduced to Auggie through a real-life “Wonder” by the name of Gabriel.  Through the power of social media and six degrees of separation, I was made aware of Gabriel – a real-life, Jewish “Auggie” who has begun sharing his transformative story with Jewish day schools, including Gross Schechter a few weeks ago and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston last spring.

It made me ask myself, as a leader of schools, “Are we providing our schools with the resources and support they need to tackle issues of difference in ways that accord with our highest Jewish values?”

I am not sure that we are.

As I continue what I feel is still my self-introduction to the field in this new role, I wanted to do some thinking together about another issue that I have a great deal of passion for – inclusion – and my enthusiasm for Schechter’s growing ability to become the inclusive Jewish day schools our community and families deserve.

We recognize that Schechter schools, Jewish day schools, private schools, etc., are not always capable of handling each and every situation appropriately. It does not mean that we are, in fact, the “best educational setting” for each Jewish child of difference or with special needs. It is hard to imagine any (private) school that can possibly claim to be that – there is way too much variation in resources, mission and children for any one school to be the “best educational setting” for every child.  It does mean, however, that we are interested in helping our schools learn to better work with families to determine if they are the best setting, to prepare a structure for children to be successful when they enroll, to establish processes to evaluate successes and failures, and to maintain healthy communication to take next steps as they occur.

[Disclaimer: My wife is a special needs educator whose academic and professional experience is with “special education inclusion”.]

In preparing to write the blog, I reviewed my research in this area I think this link from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) provides good definitions, a concise history of inclusion, decent explanations of federal law, a fair framing of the debate between “full inclusion” and “resource room”, and examples of academic research. I encourage you to read the whole thing. But for my purposes, let me quote a few highlights:

Inclusion
Inclusion is a term which expresses commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend. It involves bringing the support services to the child (rather than moving the child to the services) and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than having to keep up with the other students). Proponents of inclusion generally favor newer forms of education service delivery.

This would be an accurate expression of our attitude and aspirations for the children in our schools with special needs. (Please understand that GIFTEDNESS is a SPECIAL NEED. “Inclusion” includes our philosophy of how we strive to meet the needs of gifted students as well.)

I am being this descriptive because I want to address a common concern of parents – how will having special needs students in my child’s class impact the experience of my child? Or, won’t the teacher have to spend so much time focusing on the special needs students that s/he won’t be able to provide my child with the individualized attention we expect in private school?

First the research…

There is no evidence that the inclusion of special needs students has any negative impact on the academic experience of the other students if the classroom is structured and staffed appropriately.  This is why the conversation about whether or not a school is the “best educational setting” is so important.  We have to be honest with parents about our resources and abilities.  We should never bring in a child with needs we are not confident we can meet – that risks harm to the child and to the class.  Each child and each situation is different and is handled case by case.  But with the right attitude, support, and training – we are moving to be more capable with more students.

So if there is no impact on the academic experience of the other students…might there be other extremely important and positive outcomes of having special needs students in the classroom?  YES!

While researchers are cautious in their conclusions, there are some positive signs. In particular, students in special education and regular education showed several positive changes, including:

  • A reduced fear of human differences accompanied by increased comfort and awareness (Peck et al., 1992);
  • Growth in social cognition (Murray-Seegert,1989);
  • Improvement in self-concept of non-disabled students (Peck et. al., 1992);
  • Development of personal principles and ability to assume an advocacy role toward their peers and friends with disabilities;
  • Warm and caring friendships (Bogdan and Taylor, 1989).

Do these not seem like the kinds of values a Jewish day school ought to live by?  Would this not represent our highest aspirations for the moral development of our children?  Does this not seem like a good way of making menchen?

Schechter has a passion for meeting the needs of Jewish children – special or otherwise. One doesn’t have to choose between meeting the needs of special needs children or the highly gifted (or the overwhelming majority of children who are neither).  Our schools’ work with children of difference and their families does not detract from their work with all of their other children and families – it enhances it.

To repeat, how we deal with difference in our schools is a moral litmus test…

When my daughter graduates (please God many years from now) from her Schechter school and I watch her walk across the bimah to receive her diploma, my wife and I will surely be proud of her academic achievements (whatever they may be).  But we will be even more proud of who she will have become having learned to love and respect all her classmates no matter who they are, what they know or can do, or however quirky their personality traits might be. And we will be blessed for having had the ability to have her educated in a place that didn’t require families to have to choose between.

 
Gabriel Hafter is a 12 year old from Las Vegas, Nevada. He has Treacher Collins Syndrome. Gabriel has been appointed a WonderKid, by the national Children’s Craniofacial Association. Gabriel speaks to schools around the country, via Skype or in person, about being different, the book, Wonder, by R.J.Palacio, and his anti-bullying campaign to Choose Kind, inspired by the book.
 
If you would like Gabriel to present his 7 Wonder’s of Choosing Kind campaign to your school, please contact Jackie Hafter via phone at 702-845-3731 or email at jackie@thehafters.com.

Aren’t All Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mAren’t all Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

Extended preamble…

Some blog posts evolve into academic mini-treatises with ample hyperlinking both for proper crediting and to stimulate further learning.

Some blog posts are born from a passionate feeling and sometimes read like opinion pieces.

Other blog posts are confessional and lead to catharsis (for me) or humanizing (of me).

The blog posts that are the hardest to write – as we are about to discover – are the ones that are born from a genuine question and a desire to solicit a crowdsourced response.  Not to drive traffic to my blog or raise my social media profile.  But because I am sincerely interested in learning from my colleagues, stakeholders, readers and friends.  I am grappling with a difficult question and I am interested in serious, thoughtful, diverse and challenging answers to help me develop an authentic answer (for me).

The reason these posts are the hardest to write is that within the world of education, and the Jewish educational world even more so, the blogosphere is still largely populated by lurkers.  You are out there and you are reading blogs (which is great), but you do not (yet) feel comfortable contributing to the talmudic chain of commentary that makes blogging so wonderfully Jewish and potentially valuable. I learn some through the process of writing, to be sure, but I learn a ton through the process of collaborating with you through the commentary.

Let’s make a game of it and let’s aim big.  The 20th comment received will receive a prize from me.  That means you have to encourage others to comment as well so you can position yourself as number 20.  Let’s go for it!

End of extended preamble…

 

What is a “Community Day School”?

[NOTE: I am PURPOSELY NOT looking up and sharing definitions nor visiting RAVSAK (the Community Day School Network) for answers.  Not because I don’t think their answers are the correct ones.  They probably are.  But because how people – not just people, Heads of School, Board Chairs, Foundations, Donors, – understand what those words mean is at the crux of what I have been thinking about.]

Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • “Community” and “Pluralism” are not necessarily the same thing but they are sometimes used interchangeably.
  • Every Jewish day school thinks of itself in terms of creating community, being a community for its students and parents, being a healthy part of the larger Jewish community it lives in, and has an increasingly religiously diverse student population for whom it tries to craft an inclusive nonjudgmental religious community.
  • To say that a PARDES, Schechter, YU or Orthodox day school is “ideological” and a RAVSAK or Community Day School is “non-ideological” feels like a false dichotomy.

That’s probably controversial enough for now.

I know more about Schechter than anything else and I have firsthand experience heading a Schechter in a Jewish community where it served and serves as the non-Orthodox Jewish day school.  It has a diverse student population with levels of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, unaffiliated, secular Israeli, etc., that are commensurate to many other Schechter schools and, to my understanding, many Community Day Schools.

In terms of Jewish ritual and practice, it looks and feels very much in the “center”.  This, too, is similar to many “community day schools” where the “center” is the natural compromise between the various religious communities who make up its population.

Yes, in some cases the driver for Schechter’s center approach is a commitment to Conservative Jewish practice.  Yes, in some cases the driver for a Community Day School’s center approach is a commitment to compromise or accommodation.  But there are also cases where the reverse is true in both settings and lines remain ever-blurry.

More Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • There are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform day schools who are explicitly NOT Community Day Schools.  They typically thrive in communities with large enough Jewish populations to sustain multiple schools with more targeted religious purposefulness.
  • There are Orthodox day schools who are Community Day Schools (either by self-defnition or RAVSAK affiliation or both).
  • There are Reform day schools who are Community Day Schools (ditto).
  • If Orthodox and Reform day schools can be ideologically-identified and still labeled “Community”…why not Schechter?  [Fact: There are Schechter schools who define themselves as both.  There are already Schechter day schools who are Community Day Schools.]
  • There are also Community Day Schools who live and breathe a mission-driven pluralism that is clearly nondenominational or post-denominational or trans-denominational.  Whether you want to call “pluralism” an ideology in its own right is a fair question, but the point here is to acknowledge that there are absolutely Community Day Schools whose approach to Jewish living and learning is mission-driven and clearly not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.  It wouldn’t be fair to leave that out.

Here’s why it matters to me.

It is no secret that in recent years there have been a number of Schechter schools who have explored changing their official affiliation status from “Schechter” to “Community”. In a few cases this has genuinely been about a purposeful, mission-driven decision to change the way Judaism lives and breathes and/or to change dramatically the rigor and commitment to Jewish Studies for whatever reason. In many cases, however, the exploration is born from a feeling or hope that by changing their external status it will somehow cause a spike in enrollment or fundraising because it is signaling that the school is now of and for the community in a way that it wasn’t or couldn’t be as a “Schechter”.

This perception remains despite the data proving that the former is not true and the fact that Schechter schools can be and often are as “of and for the community” as any other kind of school.

Changing one’s affiliation status without any corresponding change to mission does a disservice to affiliation by rendering it a business equation. It reduces “Schechter” to a caricature and “Community” to a strategy. It denies both the full meaning of their philosophies and confuses the marketplace.

 

It is also the case (see Jewish Montessori) that schools that don’t see themselves as “Schechter” by its narrowest definition are beginning to explore how they may fit in with “Schechter” by a more expansive understanding of what it means and has to say about Jewish education. And so the lines between schools and networks blur even more…

What does it all mean?  For our schools and for the field?  Aren’t all Jewish day schools “community” schools? And why does it matter anyway?

Don’t just talk amongst yourselves!  Talk to me and to each other.

COMMENT.  (Remember…20th comment gets a prize.  Spam doesn’t count!)

Labor Pains

The timing of the Labor Day, the holiday created to celebrate the American labor Labor-Daymovement, with the return to school of one of the most picked-upon occupations in our society, teachers, does not escape me.

As reported over the summer in the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles,

As true believers in education, Jews have served as teachers and professors, as well as active parents watching fretfully over the public schools — even those that are not widely attended by Jewish students.  Jews have voted overwhelmingly in favor of school expenditures.  As beliefs in science and education have been challenged on the right, Jews have strongly retained loyalty to their heritage of intellectual inquiry from the European Enlightenment.

Politically, the Jewish community historically worked hard to support teachers and, in doing so, public teacher unions (and unions in general).  However, in recent years as educational reform movements have begun to take hold, a genuine debate has broken out within the Jewish community (as in the larger American community) about the balance between protecting the rights of teachers and serving the needs of students.  [I realize that those do not have to be opposites.]  Fractures and fissures of support have burst open.

 

As a practical issue – for better or for worse – this will likely cease to be an actual issue in the Jewish day school world as there are less than a handful of unionized schools left.  That does not mean that those of us charged with running schools or networks of schools do not have responsibility for supporting, elevating and professionalizing the field.  Union or no union, our schools are only going to be as good as our teachers.

Because as much as this particular debate in our society has to do with the costs of public education, the brush being painted of the teaching profession tars all – public, private, charter, and alternative.

And I think it does real damage.

The truth is that if we ever want to get serious about new forms of education (not reform, but new forms) we will need to hold the teaching profession in high regard.  I don’t know how tearing it down can lead to anything productive.  No one goes into education for the money.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t well-compensated educators (and by the by, why would there be something wrong with that?), but those whose sole purpose in choosing a profession is making money surely do not choose to be teachers.

Teaching is noble, but not all teachers may be noble.  I am not naive.  There should be accountability in teaching and I don’t pretend to know how to address that in a unionized school.  It is hard enough to do in a private school without unionized teachers.  But I do know that whatever legitimate frustration there is about a lack of accountability ought not delegitimate the entire profession.

I wrote in one my earliest blog posts of my belief that teaching is a sacred profession.

I mean that literally; I believe that teaching is a religious act.

I believe this to be true of all teaching – not the teaching of religious subjects or by religious people – but, that an inner-city math lesson is as much a religious act as is a Rabbinics class in a Jewish day school.  Because so much of teaching is relational (with your students, your parents, your colleagues, etc.) and because in order to relate you must acknowledge the divine in others, I really believe that teaching is in and of itself “religious”.  [You can substitute “spiritual” if it makes you more comfortable.]  I do not think it is an accident that many teachers consider their work a “calling” and not a “career”.

And so on this Labor Day weekend, to the teachers who have been called and the parents who partner with them, I offer words from one of my most favorite books on teaching by Maria Harris:

One of the great sorrows in human life is the discovery, too late, of our own beauty and of the beauty of much that we do. Such is often the case with teachers, as we contemplate ourselves and our vocation. At the deepest level, every teacher wants to become a better teacher, even a great teacher; in moments of insight, every teacher is aware of hidden gifts of creativity and imagination.

But often the pressures, deadlines, and exigencies of dailiness keep teachers from standing back and viewing their work with the care both they and their work deserve. Often when there might be times at faculty meetings or on in-service days, demands for the newest, the latest, and the updated can get in the way and preclude the possibility of standing back, of being still and recalling the excitement and lure which drew us to teaching in the first place.

We need an arena, a context, and an occasion to contemplate our teaching and to recover, if we have lost them, the dreams and the hopes, the vision and the grandeur that lie at the core of teaching. We need an opportunity to rediscover the creative, artistic teachers we are and were meant to be.

I hope teaching in our schools provide just that opportunity.