Shanah Tovah: How to Grant New Teachers a Sweet, New Year
Beginning a new job as a Judaic studies teacher at a Jewish day school is among the most exciting feelings in the world. You are embarking on a journey to study and teach the subjects that you love, to engage with colleagues who have similarly decided to dedicate their lives to sharing their knowledge and passion with the next generation, and to connect with students primed for inspiration and growth.
But that same job can also be daunting and anxiety-inducing. You might be teaching subjects you have never taught or even studied before. You might encounter policies and regulations that are foreign to you or colleagues who come from different backgrounds. You might have some students who are easily engaged, but others who are disinterested, skeptical, or even at times disrespectful.
The question is, What can Jewish day school administrators and Judaic studies departments do to increase the excitement and alleviate the anxiety for new teachers?
The answer, I would suggest, lies in three categories of support: curricular guidance, background information about students, and mentorship.
1. Curricular Guidance
Before new teachers begin their position, it is helpful for school administrators to meet with them about the specifics of each curriculum they will be teaching. Most day schools offer a first year teacher between two and three curricula to prepare and then teach, which can at first feel overwhelming, especially if the subjects are new to the teacher. Providing the teacher with a clear outline of the curricular goals, with books, websites, and other resources to help the teacher feel ownership over the material, and even with specific handouts that other teachers have used successfully in the past, can all help lessen the new teacher’s workload and stress level.
Moreover, this preparation leaves room for the new teacher to engage with students outside the classroom as well, through clubs, special programs, shabbatonim, and even just at lunch or other free periods. Giving new Judaic studies teachers the freedom to interact with and contribute to students in a more well-rounded fashion will help these teachers acclimate to the school that much faster and in a far more meaningful way.
2. Student Information
In addition to studying various curricula, new teachers have the important task of learning about their new students. As any seasoned teacher will tell you, one can only prepare so much ahead of time for a new school year, because a great deal of the teaching experience is dependent upon the character of an individual class. While teachers will form their own opinions about their students, it is also helpful for schools to provide new teachers with vital information about where their students are ideologically, academically, and emotionally and to supply teachers with tips for helping their students find success both inside and outside the classroom.
If a student is confronting a family member with a serious illness, the teacher should know about it. If a student has behaved better in the past sitting at the front of the classroom without distractions or working with a specific partner on a project, the teacher should be informed. If a student struggles with making friends, it makes a difference if the teacher knows when and how to offer support. Having a heads-up about significant student information is vital for new teachers to feel confident about the realities they will face and how best to educate the specific personalities in their care. Because Judaic studies teachers in particular have so many contact points with students throughout the day (tefillah, class, religious programming and guidance), it is especially important that they are aware of information that can make or break a student’s holistic experience at school.
All teachers, especially new ones, can benefit from mentorship. Even if a school properly equips new teachers ahead of time with information about their curricula, the general school process, and background about their students, ongoing support is crucial to a new teacher’s empowerment and his or her overall success. First year teachers’ days are often spent running from class to class, staying up late finishing that last worksheet or preparing that final Smartboard slide, or making sure they fully grasp the difference between Rashi’s and Ramban’s approaches on a topic. Regular meetings with a mentor allow new teachers the opportunity to have the time and space to check in about how things are going and what help is available to make things even better.
Mentors help teachers perfect specific teaching techniques: how often they are calling on individual students, whether they use the board effectively, or how well they structure and clearly articulate the goal of a given lesson. They also provide guidance for how to develop and deliver content more effectively. If presented from a nonjudgmental and constructive perspective, this feedback can give new teachers valuable insight about where they are doing really well and where they can continue to improve. As teachers, our fundamental job is to help our students learn and grow; we cannot fully accomplish this task if we are not willing to do so ourselves. The teacher-mentor relationship is an important model for how to integrate growth into everyone’s school experience.
Curriculum guidance, background information about students, and mentorship are essential to helping new teachers embark on a successful journey. Equipped with tools to help them develop their curricula, new teachers can spend more time devising creative and engaging ways to package and present their content and make it impactful for their students. It also affords them the flexibility to engage with students in powerful ways outside the classroom. With sufficient background knowledge about students, new teachers can focus on supporting students through their challenges, big or small, and find ways to help them shine academically and socially. And with present and comprehensive mentorship, new teachers can reflect upon and learn from their experiences, gain valuable wisdom, and continue to grow.
New teachers will undoubtedly be anxious at the start of their first year of teaching. If administrators and departments support new teachers in these three crucial areas, they will be doing what they can to help our newest, best, and brightest offer their students the most enjoyable and enriching educational experience in the year to come.
By Tammie Senders
Judaic Studies teacher and Israel advisor at the Ramaz Upper School