What Makes Jewish “Zoom School” Different? Relationships


What Makes Jewish “Zoom School” Different? Relationships
By Akiva Berger

Schools have a strong focus, both in mission and in practice, on academics. Acceptance to a top-tier college is seen as a predictor of future success. Since high grades are a precondition for admittance to such an institution, students are naturally incentivized to do well. 

Jewish schools are unique in that they have the added mission of connecting students not only to their future, but to their venerable past. Grades may motivate students to focus on their future. But to inspire the next generation of students to internalize their rich and multifaceted heritage requires strong relationships with role models. Indeed, ongoing research, including some recent findings, have pointed to student-teacher relationships as a key factor in the religious experience and success of Jewish schooling. As Professor Haym Soloveitchik put it, “A way of life is not learned but rather absorbed. Its transmission is mimetic, imbibed from parents and friends, and patterned on conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school.”

As a result of COVID-19, most schools are now implementing online teaching as a substitute to classroom learning. Relationships are being moved online as schools across the world scramble to create proper guidelines for “Zoom school.”

As part of my research at Tel Aviv University regarding Jewish distance learning, I, along with Dr. Arnon Herskowitz, conducted a study (pre-COVID) comparing teachers’ perceptions of student-teacher relationships in the classroom and online. The teachers in the study taught religious subjects in Orthodox schools both face-to-face and remotely. Teachers were asked to freely select a student they taught face-to-face and a student they taught online. Teachers were then asked the same questions aimed at describing each relationship.

There were three key findings in the study.

The Chosen Student

When asked to choose a student about whom to complete our questionnaire, there was a clear and consistent difference between the students. The students chosen from the online classes were all academically successful, while those chosen for the interview from the face-to-face class were all struggling, either academically or otherwise.

When describing the online students, teachers repeatedly used positive terms such as “intellectual,” “enthusiastic,” “on target,” “never gets discouraged,” and “initiates questions.”

On the other hand, teachers characterized their the face-to-face students using language that conveyed struggle, with descriptions such as “did not bring about the expected outcome, mainly regarding her motivation and cooperation,” “seemingly uninvolved with the course, not engaged,” “not sure that intellectually at that moment in his life he was actually able to […] handle the texts,” “she is really struggling with who she is.”

As we will demonstrate in the coming findings, the reason for this discrepancy stems from the very different avenues of support engendered by online learning and face-to-face learning.

Student First Versus Person First

In describing their relationships with their students, teachers expressed empathy for all of them. However, for online students, their empathy focused mostly on academics and school work, while empathy for the face-to-face student addressed multiple facets of the student’s life.

When describing her relationship with the online students, one teacher said, “She knows that I care, she will always write ‘Thank you for understanding, thank you for caring, thank you for letting me hand something in late, thank you for being so flexible’... I think she knows that I care and that my goal is for her to love class and to learn something.”

The focus there is on empathy and caring based on academics. When describing her face-to-face relationship with a student, however, the same teacher does not limit her descriptions to school work.

Because of our respect for each other, we really cared about each other, we were very close, she could come to me… She was very concerned about a student who was having a really bad relationship with the administrator and she came and talked to me about it.

In both the online and face-to-face instances, the teacher expressed caring and support for her students. However, due to the differences inherent in online and interpersonal student-teacher interactions, there were very different routes of support. The face-to-face route is immersive and touches on the “person” behind the student, while the online route is more focused and touches primarily on the “student” aspect of the person.

What Moodle Can’t Measure

Online learning technologies, like Moodle, are not structured to assess or facilitate student-teacher relationships. These mediums are designed for academics. The technology used to support the online courses and monitor online students’ progress may yield positive results for the academic goals of both teachers and students in promoting transparency, for example, but it fails to support and develop other facets of the student-teacher relationship.

When face-to-face relationships are absent, teachers lose the ability to assess in real time the effectiveness of their teaching; in other words, teachers cannot “read the room.” As one teacher describing her online class put it, “It’s not like in a classroom, where you can say, ‘OK, I see that he’s bored, so I’ll give him something to do.’” Another teacher described the difference as follows:

Wondering if you give the [right] response to students is stronger in face-to-face, because you see the student. [You wonder:] Maybe I could have gone easier on her yesterday, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten angry yesterday. You immediately see the results.

While online learning platforms provide a picture of a student's academic success, face-to-face teaching provides a much greater context through which teachers can assess, measure and understand a student's success and failure.

I believe there are several practical strategies suggested by these findings.

Keep Students and Teachers Together

This study was conducted on teachers who did not have a prior relationship with their online students other than the one they built online. If Zoom school continues on to next year, schools that have moved to an online format should consider keeping the current teacher with his or her class in order to retain the benefits of the existing student-teacher relationships. Teachers who have a prior relationship may be able to maintain the rapport they have built with their students online and have that more easily translate to their online teaching.

Encourage One-On-One (or One-On-Few) Opportunities

The class size in this study ranged between 8-15 students per class. Teachers teaching a student one-on-one, even online, report strong relationships with students outside of the subject matter. This implies that the academically driven relationship found in our study is contextual and can be overcome by smaller teacher-student ratios.

Be Cognizant of the Academically Struggling Students

Teachers should be cognizant of the fact that academically stronger students will more naturally thrive in online settings, while those whose strengths lie in non-academic areas will be challenged to succeed even more than in the traditional classroom setting. The face-to-face classroom is characterized by multiple avenues of communication, verbal and nonverbal, active and inactive, which are all very immediate. Online learning communication tends to be fragmented, focused and formal.

a. Model Non-Academic Avenues of Expression

While it is difficult to increase the frequency of communication, there are some strategies that can enhance the quality of the communication. For example, encouraging nonverbal cues can positively affect student-teacher interactions. Another strategy that has proven to increase online student-teacher relationships is exercising self-disclosure, by sharing opinions of ongoing events or personal habits. This strategy can create an avenue of expression for students who do not communicate academically.

b. Utilize Alternative Spaces

Another means of strengthening relationships between teachers and students is opening multiple spaces other than the virtual classroom where students and teachers can converse in informal groups. In this way, teachers can learn more about their students beyond just their academic achievements while also actually increasing the frequency of their communication and support. Some research has found that such informal settings as Facebook can increase perceived student-teacher relationships in students.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot 5:16 states:

All love that depends on a something, when that thing ceases, the love ceases; and all love that does not depend on anything, will never cease.

Online teachers do not lack any of the emotional capacities that face-to-face teachers have, and they are often the same people. Rather, the imbalance between distance-learning relationships and face-to-face relationships is rooted in the modality of instruction. With online learning, the relationship ceases outside of the academic environment. 

Developing a connection to one’s own roots needs to transcend subject matter. A role model holds history, morality and tradition in one hand, and extends the other hand into the future. Not every student can grab that hand with academic inquiry. Schools must strive to engender that independent love the Mishnah speaks of and allow an avenue to it for every student.

As we face the real possibility that schools across the U.S. will not be physically opening in September, we must be proactive in creating the most encouraging and effective models for online teaching, ones that will give every student the ability to thrive and grow, and ensure that no child is forgotten or needlessly struggles. The key to successful Jewish education is relationships, so let us provide teachers with the tools they need to best create those meaningful and lasting relationships online.

Akiva Berger is a doctoral student in the Applied Science Communications Research Group of the Technion and at the Technologies in Education Program at the University of Haifa.