HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Supporting Minyan Leaders

by Reuven Margrett Issue: Tefillah

At many schools, leading minyan is a task for which teachers are least prepared; yet few schools provide the time and support structures for teachers to reflect, learn and grow in this capacity. Margrett discusses his school’s approach.

In the world of tefillah, we are always thinking about goals of the minyanim, student motivation, how to assess skill development, and perhaps the occasional discipline issue. Yet are we thinking about appropriate support we can give minyan leaders?

My role as a minyan coordinator is certainly a logistical one. I figure out which teachers are leading a minyan, how students can sign up for their minyan choice, what is the focus of the non-davening minyanim, which students are going where, which rooms, etc.

Aside from logistics, I needed to ask myself, in what other ways can I help support the minyan leaders and the unique challenges they face? They meet students four days a week for 30-40 minutes attempting to engage students who are generally disengaged with formal Jewish prayer or Jewish spirituality. Most struggle with any conception of God, let alone a God who hears and interacts with humans. This is coupled with little student accountability for what happens during minyan, other than behavior, as no grades are given.

With this in mind, I wondered how my role as a minyan coordinator can impact, direct and help minyan leaders. With the encouragement and support of the Pardes Educators Program, I decided to do some action research focusing on the support minyan leaders need and want and the impact that support can have on their ability to lead.

Action research is a reflective process in which a person seeks to solve a problem or make a change, and conducts research while actively participating in that change. While there are some limitations to this small-scale research, I believe the lessons learned are useful, applicable and needed among all day schools.

My research focused on how I could use my role as coordinator to help minyan leaders

a) be better prepared.
b) increase their repertoire of teaching experiences.
c) be more confident.

After meetings with teachers I would give them questionnaires or interview them to see how the changes were affecting them.

The results surprised me. With leaders receiving a little bit of structure and guidance, all three of the above goals were met. As teachers we all know the difference that appropriate support can foster among colleagues, regardless of whether you are the giver or receiver of such support. It is incumbent on all administrators to review the specific support they are offering minyan leaders and to seek ways to develop a robust support system. If minyan leaders are appropriately supported then their most difficult task becomes that much easier.

Support

Teachers want collaboration and idea sharing, particularly practical ideas of appropriate and relevant activities to do in the classroom. Minyan leaders were concerned about having good ideas and activities to engage students and to increase student motivation. (We had general minyan meetings for all minyan leaders, but the time was used to discuss larger minyan issues and not for idea sharing.)

Among the greatest assets we have in our school are the people who lead minyan. Some have had years of experience and know what works. Leading minyan feels like culinary art: you need to know the ingredients you have and how to work with them. Success means a flavorful result which most enjoy, whereas the opposite is unpalatable for all, including the chef. Novice minyan leaders can learn a great amount from the veterans, and even the most experienced can develop their repertoire.

Minyan meetings

What emerged from the above was the establishment of a fixed 9th grade minyan meeting that met every two or three weeks and lasted one hour. The aim of the meeting was to go through the piece of curricula we were focusing on. We would discuss:

a) The prayers the minyanim were working on, and major themes and ideas that come from it.

b) Suggestions about how to turn those ideas into classroom activities.

In an attempt to formalize the discussion I created a Google doc entitled “The Big Book of Tefillah Ideas.” We would look at a particular brakhah with siddurim in front of us, brainstorm ideas that come from the brakhah, and then come up with minyan activities that teach those ideas to the students. While the minyan leaders discussed their ideas, I typed them up onto a projected whiteboard.

I was surprised how a change of focus from the normal meeting agenda (announcements, issues, new ideas, planning, etc.) to more practical outcomes changed the effects of such meetings. Rather than minyan leaders merely knowing more logistics, or having thought about minyan ideas that may or may not happen, they were coming away with practical, relevant materials, ideas and activities that they could use in their minyan. Due to this, no one thought these meetings were a waste of time, and even further some began to feel that this meetings were essential to help them be competent minyan leaders.

Collaboration

The collaboration during the meetings allowed for new ways of looking at how to teach tefillah. Oftentimes ideas derived not from one person but from the combined energies in the room.
After one meeting where we brainstormed the 13th blessing of Amidah (concerning tzaddikim, the righteous) and came up with the idea of doing a “secret tzaddik” activity (like secret Santa, or gamadim), one minyan did the activity in their classroom. In the following meeting one teacher gave the following feedback: “Secret tzaddik didn’t work the first time—not focused enough instructions. Worked second time.” The meetings gave minyan leaders the support they needed in order to try, and fail.

Previously the minyan leaders had displayed a certain tunnel vision. They were concerned only about their own minyan, and they didn’t have time to discuss with other minyan leaders unless there was a big issue. The focused meetings created the time for positive open discussions allowing genuine creativity that was authentic, rather than forced. Minyan leaders were also encouraged by the support they found in their colleagues and the realization that the other minyanim were not perfect. This meant that risk-taking was encouraged. As a result, creativity and risk-taking increased in the minyanim.

Self-reflection and evaluation

A meta-aim of the meetings was to help teachers be more reflective on the success of what they were doing.

Minyan leaders made two points concerning the activities they did in class. The first is that experiential activities led to increased student engagement. The second is that they were not convinced that more engaged students result in a better learning of prayer texts. Whilst these evaluations are particular to our school, this process of self-evaluation is relevant to all schools.

By taking the time to share, review and plan, minyan leaders became more reflective of what it was they were trying to achieve. Critical to any meaningful development of minyan leaders is for them to ask themselves if they are being effective. Minyan leaders were really engaged, and invested, in the overall aims of what minyan at our school was trying to achieve. Furthermore, their input was essential for me as minyan coordinator to know what was working, or not, and to thoughtfully plan for the future.

Conclusion

After seeing the effects on minyan leaders, and the focus and support they had gained, I was surprised that I had not done this sooner. As with everything else, there were time constraints, both of myself and with the minyan leaders. Yet we made the time, once every two or three weeks for a shared, focused, and practical minyan meeting. Key to the success was that only those engaged in similar minyanim were invited. General minyan issues were left for general minyan meetings.

This one rather simple idea made a big impact on those minyan leaders; one commented that “it revolutionized my minyan experience.” How many other opportunities are we missing that could help our minyan leaders to grow, develop and feel supported? How many in the administration are concerned about curriculum, and minyan goals, yet fail to focus on the most precious asset we have: the minyan leader?

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Tefillah

Most day schools are committed to cultivating Jewish prayer, tefillah, as a spiritual practice. In practice, they often find the obstacles formidable: lack of curriculum, knowledgeable and passionate prayer leaders, student interest, awareness of goals, to name a few. Articles here aim to help schools clarify their approach and strengthen the educational bases of school tefillah.

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