From Burnt out to Lit up: How Project Innovate Is Changing the Narrative

Recruitment and retention continue to be a significant stumbling block to strengthening Jewish education. At the London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS), we spend a lot of time advocating for the vital role teachers play in our community. Aside from the need for new teachers, the community also needs existing teachers to be valued and provided with the time and incentives to maintain their passion. Below is a description of a program we run, Project Innovate, that aims to accomplish just that. 

 

Changing the Narrative

After about seven years on the job, many teachers hit a professional plateau. Their initial idealism for the work starts to wane; they may feel overstretched, a lack of opportunities for growth, exhausted by the demands of students, parents, administrators. Some start looking for new lines of work; others dig in to their roles for the long haul but with a “curbed enthusiasm.”

At LSJS, we aspire to change the narrative. A career in Judaic studies teaching needs to move away from the unfair portrayal of uninspired and stressed professionals, toward something that the idealistic graduates and role models that we desperately need would be excited to participate in.

Project Innovate, a cohort learning program that launched in September, aims to address some of these challenges. We provide a forum for existing teachers to collaborate with one another and invite them on a learning journey, with a shared quest for greater impact in our schools. Thanks to our partnership with UnitEd, we offer a small stipend toward this commitment, together with financial support for an impactful project at the end of the program. 

However, this is a professional development program with a twist. Unlike other professional development opportunities, the sessions do not always conclude with obvious practical strategies to support classroom teaching or leadership. We don’t advertise that “by the end of the course, you will be able to xxx” (fill in the required teaching skill). Instead, the project promises to provide what we believe our teachers need the most, namely, time to think.

 

Project Innovate Cohort 2023-2024

The theme of the project this year explores a shared challenge: How do we develop a meaningful relationship with God in our classrooms? On this learning journey, we intend to provide a safe space for our teachers to grapple with this question and in turn develop their own thinking. The hope is that each of the monthly sessions would leave our teachers inspired, challenged and valued. 

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As the project began, it was clear how integral each of the participants were to the learning journey. Each teacher brought their own “flavor,” teaching philosophy and experience to discussions. During the opening session with Rabbi Dr. Raphael Zarum, dean of LSJS, one teacher reflected that “times are changing in a very big way, and the students today are completely different to the students from when I first started teaching. I am excited to spend this year gaining knowledge on areas that I haven’t given enough time to, thinking about pedagogy and how we can best inspire our students and future generations of our community.” This statement summed up the common theme, that teachers want the chance to grow and think. 

Thanks to our partnership with Koren Publishers, we provide our cohort with inspiring presentations that challenge their current teaching practice, showcase innovation and prompt them to recalibrate their goals. Alongside the guidance and expertise from Rabbi Dr. Daniel Rose at Koren, a leading innovator and educator, the initiative aspires to leave teachers refreshed and invigorated, despite the late hour and extra time required to attend.

 

Mixing Things up 

Project Innovate presents teachers with sessions on various topics from a diverse set of experts. Each monthly seminar has a different focus and more importantly, a different style of delivery. Dr. Helena Miller, director of teacher training and degrees at LSJS, emphasized the value of being a reflective practitioner, providing an academic structure to help teachers really listen to students. Rabbi Dr. Jay Goldmintz, author of the Koren Ani Tefillah siddurim, shared inspiring research on the importance of mapping spiritual growth alongside a fuller understanding of the journey through adolescence. Tania Schweig, head of school at Oakland Hebrew Day School, modeled her philosophy on spiritual conversations as a vehicle to reaching the inner self. 

Rabbi David Fohrman, founder and lead scholar at Aleph Beta, had the cohort transfixed to his teaching philosophy showing through the text from the Joseph story, helping to reframe how God continues to communicate in a post-prophetic age. Rabbi Samuel Lebens, an associate professor in the philosophy department at the University of Haifa, recalibrated the concept of emunah, drawing upon a range of teachings from the world of academic philosophy and Jewish thought. These veteran teachers were enriched by experimenting with a diverse range of pedagogic and academic approaches. The program assumes that inspired teachers will inspire those around them.

 

Implementing Change

The cohort of teachers have been tasked with using their own learning as a springboard toward a project for their own schools. They have taken ownership over their initiatives, excited to launch them and share their innovation. LSJS will celebrate the desire for innovation, and subsequently explore the impact that this opportunity has had on the students now exposed not only to new programming, but to inspired, dedicated and driven teachers. 

Supporting veteran teachers—providing them with the time and space to think, championing their hard work and valuing their efforts—is a pivotal piece of the pipeline puzzle. Ultimately, the hope is that this, in turn, will help shift the narrative. We know that Judaic studies teachers can have the greatest impact on our children’s identity, relationship with their Judaism and Jewish literacy for the rest of their lives. Rather than seeing teachers burnt out and too stressed for change, we are supporting teachers to continue to achieve these lofty and precious goals throughout their career.

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Jewish Educator Pipeline
Spring 2024
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