From Egg-Carton School to a Community of Teachers

These were extreme cases, but in every school, it is crucial for administrators of Jewish day schools to work toward minimizing adversarial situations, emphasizing instead common concerns: a desire to work with children, a commitment to Jewish cultural literacy, and a dedication to the Jewish people, past, present, and future. Strengthening a community of teachers can help create a renewed sense of purpose and raise morale in difficult times.

Community-building doesn’t just happen. Metaphors and similes like “Lone Rangers” and “soloists” (rather than members of an orchestra) dot the research literature on teachers. Dan Lortie’s book Schoolteacher is more than three decades old, still in print, and still describes individualistic and conservative teachers working in egg carton-like institutions. How can a head of school break down this isolationism without putting more burdens on the already overloaded members of her faculty? How can attempts to build community feel nourishing rather than noxious?

One suggestion for a first teachers’ meeting is to dust off the mission statement of the school and revisit the fundamental question, what are we doing here? There is something elevating about the exploration of core values and vocation. Parker Palmer, citing Frederick Buechner’s definition, doesn’t describe vocation in terms of altruism, self-abnegation, or duty. Instead, he describes vocation as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” To paraphrase, having a vocation means that a teacher does what makes her happiest while meeting the most pressing needs of her community. Such an exercise not only feels good, but it introduces teachers new to the school and to the field to the raison d’être of the school.

How can that flame of vocation be fanned? One strategy is to make the school into a learning community. The use of the term has exploded like mushrooms after a spring rain. Peter Senge is credited with introducing “the learning organization” to the lexicon of the business community. A learning organization is one in which people “expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” This sounds like the goal of professional development to me.

Like the little girl with the little curl in the nursery rhyme, when professional development is good, it’s very, very good, and when it’s bad, it’s horrid. Steven Rothenberg, the director of the Concord, New Hampshire, Regional Technical Center, carefully chooses one professional development event for his staff, to which they go as a group. He leverages the shared experience to try building a set of core beliefs, a common vocabulary, and then shared practices. The practices provide an identity for the group and a foundation for more collaboration and learning.

Most teachers are learners. They don’t resent professional development; what they resent is wasting their time. In an era of tight budgets, taking one’s teachers to a group learning experience and using it to build community might not be feasible. Professional development need not be about bringing in the expert who comes from afar with the brief case and promise of a big check; it can begin small and at home. Heads of school can recognize the talent that exists within the school by offering an opportunity for a best practices audit, asking teachers to present their most dynamic, student-stirring lessons. Professional development can happen on an impromptu basis, when the head of school identifies a school issue, one that he truly hasn’t decided how to solve for himself. It can happen in subgroups, when a teacher reads a book or an article that has bearing on school life and invites colleagues to discuss it, or the head of school or one of the division heads wants to create a biweekly study group around rabbinic texts and how they relate to contemporary Jewish life. The expression “work with the willing” comes to mind.

A much more ambitious kind of professional development is the professional learning community, an ongoing approach to improve curriculum, instruction and assessment within a school. There are two types of professional learning communities or PLCs: one that is teacher-led and free-flowing, characterized by collaborative practices like critical friends protocols, peer observation, and analysis of student work. As David Jacobson notes, the plus side of this kind of PLC is creating teacher leaders who can take ownership of the process and build inquiry skills. The downside is that the free-flowing nature of the enterprise can lead to a loss of focus and ineffectiveness. Dividing the school into teacher-led teams can often dilute the sense of community rather than increase it.

The second type of PLC is one that is more goal driven with the agenda set by the head of school. The plus side is its results-oriented approach; the downside is that it can lead to a top-down implementation and a diminution of teacher enthusiasm. Jacobson recommends a “common priorities” approach to instructional improvement in which teams of teachers come up with learning goals, prioritize them, develop common assessment of these goals, and collaborate on designing lessons based on the goals. They would then teach the lessons, analyze student work and compare results.

Besides making the school a learning community, heads of schools must support their teachers. Teacher support includes creating induction programs for new teachers for several years, not only their first year of teaching. It would also require the training of mentors who would work with these teachers in order to keep them teaching. Support for teachers means balancing the care and feeding of parents with the care and feeding of staff. In an age of the helicopter parent, the teacher needs as much protection as possible. Supporting teachers means rewarding learning outside the auspices of the school. Teachers who take courses that extend their subject matter or pedagogic competence or who complete academic degrees should be rewarded with raises.

Schools must attend to the nourishing of the personal as well as the professional. Teachers are people whose personhood is inseparable from their professions. (Watch the way teachers introduce themselves to strangers.) As Alex Pomson has noted, administrators have to be cognizant of the fact that Jewish schools are vehicles of meaning not only for students, but also for teachers. School communities must celebrate and mourn together, to recognize the successes of teachers in the wider community beyond the school, like running in marathons, coaching a winning soccer team, or being honored for their volunteering. School boards should be encouraged to recognize teachers in various ways, from teacher appreciation breakfasts to giving book certificates on Hanukkah, or plants on Tu BiShvat.

By attending to teachers’ health and well-being, by nurturing their intellectual and professional growth in meaningful professional development activities, heads of school can foster community. They can also succeed in making teachers mindful of what Patricia Houghton calls “all that is beautiful and glorious about being a teacher.” ♦

Dr. Carol K. Ingall is the Dr. Bernard Heller Professor of Jewish Education at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She can be reached at

Carol K. Ingall
Strengthening Community
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning
Published: Fall 2010