“To pull a friend out of the mire, don’t hesitate to get dirty.”
Baal Shem Tov
Contemporary literature on education is awash with articles touting the benefits of strong relationships. According to one recent academic study, “Substantial research literature indicates that positive teacher-student relationships (TSRs) promote students’ academic achievement.” The authors even coined an initialism just for these relationships (TSR). Experts disagree over the cause of the achievement, whether its student responsiveness or teacher motivation, though I think they're trying to tease out inseparables. Positive TSRs create a “virtuous cycle” that inspires both students and teachers to do their best work, and to strive to do better.
A 2019 report put out by the organization Transforming Education stressed the importance of teacher-administrator relationships: “A key factor in creating an environment conducive to student academic growth and social-emotional development is the cultivation of positive relationships between school leaders and staff.” It propounds three ways that these relationships support student outcomes: by enabling teacher growth; by increasing teacher retention (as they put it, mitigating teacher turnover); and by modeling positive relationships for students.
Relationships are surely at the heart of the enterprise of Jewish schools. At the center is the “TSR”: the tremendous caring and thought that teachers bring to the classroom, to leverage the dynamics among students, to support each student and account for each student in all of their unique complexity. Today’s teachers are attuned less to grades than to the person behind the grades; their concern is student intellectual and spiritual growth and social and emotional well-being, of which grades provide only one very rough index. All teachers, and especially Judaics teachers, train their vision on their students’ relationships bein adam le-chaveiro, among themselves, and bein adam la-Makom, with their Creator.
The relationship between parents and teachers can be fraught with sensitivities: demands and expectations on one side, anxieties and distancing on the other. And yet that relationship can be critical for student success. Teachers also can play a vital role in mediating the relationship between parents and the larger community that the school seeks to create; they are the first touchpoints for the families’ interactions with the school more broadly.
As noted, relationships between administrators and teachers play a key role in ensuring academic success. They also help maintain focus on the school’s vision, mission and goals, infusing all of the professionals’ work with the messages that can inspire everyone to row in the same direction. Additionally, administrators are the custodians of the school’s culture, constantly watching for potential outbreaks of toxicity and averting them into opportunities for healthy growth and collaboration.
These and other relationships that shape the larger community of Jewish schools are the subject of this issue of HaYidion. The first section looks at perspectives and programs that shape leadership and relationships within and beyond the school. Three Prizmah colleagues describe how fostering relationships is strategically built into all of our work with the field. Kislowicz writes of changing the paradigm from a transactional to a relationship-based model of leadership, across the range of school stakeholders. The next two articles present large, ongoing initiatives for multischool collaboration: Erlitz shows how a foundation can bring together school leaders within a community, and Ergas & Vorspan how a nonprofit agency can spark change and form synergies throughout a region. Levitt digs into the differences between a professional and relational culture within a school, considers their pros and cons and suggests a compromise.
The next section focuses on relationships between administrators and teachers. Pasek advocates for implementing a system of teacher leaders as a way to empower and retain teachers, alleviate administrative overload and bring the two sides closer. Novogroder & Moche offer guidance for success and potential pitfalls for teachers who become administrators, while Kligman recounts his personal journey on that path. Parkes, Elias & Kress show how the principles behind SEL can inform administrative work on creating a supportive culture for teachers to thrive. Brown argues for the importance of breaking bread, or bagels, to overcome teacher isolation and enhance faculty cohesion and camaraderie.
In this issue’s school feature, contributors reflect upon someone who exerted a pivotal influence on their work in Jewish education. The last group of articles looks mostly at TSR, relationships between teachers and students. We start with a piece about parents, whose presence can help or hinder those relationships: Lipsky presents a Parent Advisory Committee as a way to channel parent concern and initiative for the good of the school. Cook & Kent offer a set of questions that can help teachers reflect on and strengthen the web of relationships within the classroom. Levingston explores the ways that teachers in different day schools establish a moral character through their questions, behavior and attitude. Levine reveals how his school’s PBL program encourages students to forge relationships with people in the wider community. Weiner writes of the formative role that a school’s GSA can have on student identity and sense of belonging. As a coda to the issue, Hoffman & Gordon, the founders of JEDLAB, the pioneering Facebook group with thousands of Jewish educators, converse about the nature of relationships formed and fostered online–a basic aspect of life for many if not most students today.
May the relationships in your school community continue to blossom and grow, strengthen and deepen, through the planning of you and your colleagues and the thousands of serendipitous exchanges that take place every day. Hinei mah tov u-mah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad!