What Makes a Jewish Day School Teacher? The Connection Between Passion and Teaching

We all know that no one enters the field of Jewish education to get rich, or at least we hope that no one does as they would be sorely disappointed. So why, then, do those who enter the field do so? More specifically, who are Jewish day school teachers and why do they enter the field? How does that affect their classrooms? And, most relevant for practice, how can we use this information to best impact our students?

Who are Jewish day school teachers, and why do they enter the field?

Researchers have shed some light on the reasons why teachers in general, and religious studies teachers in particular, enter the profession. Robert Serow, Deborah Eaker, and Krista Forest determined that teachers are interested in student development both in the particular subject material and also in their own identity formation (I Want to See Some Kind of Growth out of Them). Along those lines, Mike Younger, Sue Brindley, David Pedder, and Hazel Hagger found that teachers choose their profession out of a desire both to challenge themselves intellectually and to transform the youth with whom they work (Starting Points: Student Teachers’ Reasons for Becoming Teachers and their Preconceptions of What this Will Mean). According to these researchers, those who enter the field of teaching are committed not only to students’ academic learning but also to connecting with students and fostering their maturation and development in the world in general.

Regarding religious studies teachers, Roisin Coll shows that religious teachers’ identities are deeply ingrained in their content knowledge and comfort level regarding the religious subjects they are expected to teach (Student Teachers’ Perception of their Role and Responsibilities as Catholic Educators). As such, because Jewish studies contain both academic and value-laden content, these teachers infuse their particular subject matter with their personal identity, making the two almost indistinguishable and bringing that infused identity into their teaching on a regular basis. Focusing specifically on Jewish day school teachers, Laya Salomon similarly found that teachers’ religion plays an important role in their decision to become teachers in a Jewish day school in the first place, with those more closely connected to Judaism choosing to enter the profession, again showing that, for religious studies teachers, their personal religious beliefs play an important role in their personas as teachers.

In doing research for my own dissertation, focusing on the perceptions of Jewish studies teachers at a community day school, my findings were in line with those of previous research. Of the participants I interviewed, none consciously made a choice to become a Jewish studies teacher at a Jewish day school. Rather, for each of them, Judaism and Jewish culture were such a central part of their own lives that their careers followed an organic progression, ultimately leading each of them to be teachers at a community day school.

How does it affect their classrooms?

The decision to be a day school teacher is closely connected to the teachers’ own Jewish identities, and each of them brings their specific Jewish identity into the classroom. As such, as shown by researchers, they each bring their own goals for the students and have a lasting impact on the students. Ruth Butler shared that teaching is an interpersonal endeavor, not just personal endeavor, and that teachers’ goals are closely related to teachers’ roles in the classroom and their approach to instruction (Striving to Connect: Extending an Achievement Goal Approach to Teacher Motivation to Include Relational Goals for Teaching), showing how personal and individual the art of teaching can be, especially when tied to teachers’ Jewish identities.

Norman Friedman expresses that Jewish studies teachers continue to develop their own content knowledge while teaching, stating that “Jewish content is usually learned in the act of teaching, a kind of continuing education effect” (On the “Non-Effects” of Jewish Education on Most Students: A Critique), emphasizing the value and goal of lifelong learning for both the students and the teachers. Peter Kash, in his dissertation A Linkage of Student Satisfaction in High School Classrooms and Future Jewish Identity, also explains that teachers play an important role in Jewish education of the students because their satisfaction with Jewish education and the experience they receive while obtaining that education will shape their identity. The more positive their experience, the more likely they are to have a strong Jewish identity.

For the community day school teachers I researched, teaching is a very personal act, and they constantly, usually subconsciously, infuse their own identities and personalities into their classrooms, which is both unavoidable and helpful in that it leads to deeper, more genuine connections with their students. Additionally, their own personal values are projected into the classroom. For example, one teacher-participant places instilling a commitment to community and communal participation as a high priority, and this is reflected in her own life through her considering the community’s needs when developing her curriculum and though her own active affiliation with communal organizations.

Another participant is deeply committed to imparting a love of lifelong learning to his students; he models this value through his own constant learning, often including the students and encouraging them to select topics of interest. A third participant is closely connected to Israel and feels that all students should share a connection to Israel, being familiar with the history of the land and people and showing some comfort level with the language of modern Hebrew. His students are cognizant of Israeli current events and well versed in Jewish history. For all of the teachers I interviewed, their own values and identities shape their classrooms and their students.

How can we use this information to best impact our students?

Given the nature and motivation of many of our Jewish studies teachers, our schools should work to recognize the unique role these individuals play in students’ lives and capitalize on the specific field of teaching in a day school in order to benefit our students. Although this is no simple task, here are three suggestions to begin the conversation.

Provide opportunities and resources for Jewish studies teachers to continue their personal development as well as professional development. Yes, working on differentiation and technology integration and pedagogy are important for the ongoing development of teachers, but given that Jewish identity and a commitment to studying Jewish texts plays an essential role in a Jewish studies teacher’s entering and remaining in the field, and because of the value of learning that we instill in our students, our schools should be fostering lifelong learning among its faculty. Through these ongoing learning opportunities, not only will teachers be able to authentically model lifelong learning for the students, but they will return to their classrooms refreshed, encouraged, and ready to continue to inspire the students.

Give Jewish studies teachers the opportunity to broadly impact the students beyond their own classrooms. Encourage these teachers to interact with the students outside of their Tanakh (or rabbinics or Jewish thought) classes through interdisciplinary programs and lessons, showing the students that Jewish studies and Jewish identity do not need to be compartmentalized into allotted chunks of 45 minutes per day. The research shows that day school teachers become day school teachers because of the way that Judaism has become a part of their own personal identities, so our schools should aim to provide opportunities, through extracurricular activities and other programs, for these teachers to use their identities and interact with students in different ways. If the students have positive associations with Jewish studies and see that these subjects are applicable beyond the specific classes, they will be more likely to infuse them into their own identities and draw on them in the future.

Allow Jewish studies teachers the freedom to impact students’ identities, free from academic constraints. If, as the research suggests, one of the main roles of Jewish studies teachers is to affect personal development and identity formation, alternative forms of assessment should not only be allowed, but they should be encouraged. Accurately translating a text from Hebrew or Aramaic to English can be measured through a test. Comparing the commentaries of Rashi and Radak can be measured through a test. Personal development and identity formation cannot and should not be assessed through a test.

As such, because of their commitment to instilling and fostering Jewish identity within their students, Jewish studies teachers tend to be less concerned with traditional measures of academic success such as grades and college admissions, focusing instead on the long-term effects of day school education such as community involvement, evidence of lifelong learning, and daily decisions that reflect a sense of Jewish identity. Jewish studies teachers structure their classroom goals in a way that aims to prepare their students for personal success in the greater world through strengthening their identity and helping them to form a knowledge base through which to make their decisions. Their assessments, then, should reflect these goals.

Rather than restricting Jewish studies teachers to doling out letter grades, encourage them to have their students create portfolios of their work, apply their learning to the world outside of the day school, and internalize the material rather than cramming for a test. Through allowing these teachers the freedom to assess their students through more authentic means, they can more accurately determine the actual impact their classes (and the Jewish identities that they bring with them) are having on the students.

William Arthur Ward once said, “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” Within our day schools are many great teachers who inspire our students on a daily basis. They do this, largely, because they want to have an impact on students and help them to develop, both academically and personally. Each of these teachers infuses his or her own personality and identity into the classroom, aiming for the greatest impact possible. Through fostering ongoing personal development, providing opportunities for the teachers to be involved in the school beyond the classroom, and allowing and encouraging flexibility in assessment, our schools can help our great teachers to inspire the next generation. ♦

Sarah Levy is a doctoral candidate in education and teaches at the Denver Jewish Day School.[email protected]

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HaYidion Day School Teachers Winter 2013
Day School Teachers
Winter 2013