An “Alternative Learning Community for Teachers”

Posted by Susan Wall on November 17, 2013
Topics: Day Schools, Jewish Education, Pardes Center for Jewish Educators

Background

The Pardes Educators Program (PEP), funded by the AVI CHAI Foundation, is a two-year highly individualized graduate program in Israel which invests deeply in the training of new teachers, preparing them as Judaic studies teachers for day schools in North America. After several cohorts were already in the field the Jim Joseph Foundation sought to create an effective support system for novice teachers, and in 2006 it awarded The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies a grant to work with PEP alumni. The hope was to learn what it would take to further develop these outstanding teachers and keep them in the field.

Recognizing that each day school ideally would provide the primary learning community for its PEP graduates, albeit to a greater or lesser extent, the Pardes Educators Alumni Support Project (PEASP) was initiated with open-ended questions about what could and should comprise our teacher support. Over the last six years, we have explored and fine-tuned various types of teacher support and in-service professional development. We continue to experiment and learn.

This article reflects upon what we have discovered about creating a learning community for our graduates and shares what could be helpful for schools, training programs, or institutions that provide induction support or in-service professional development. Throughout this article we will also refer to models of good practice that we have observed in our visits to many of the 100 plus graduates who have taught in 80 different day schools throughout North America over the past decade.

Step 1: Creating community

According to accepted definitions, the term community can refer to a group that functions or resides within a common location, or it can refer to individuals or sub-groups with a shared vision who are not bound geographically. In either case, there is something that unites the members of a community – be it common history, ideology, language, culture or norms. Institutions cannot assume that an articulated mission statement alone suffices to create the bonds of community. A significant element of the training of PEP students was a conscious exposure to a vision and core values, as well as the development of a shared language. This lent itself to the formation of a learning community (in person or virtually), even for graduates coming from different cohorts teaching in different locations, and in different day schools. This also helped spark motivation to reach out for and accept support from Pardes professionals and other PEP graduates. (It is worth noting that those who felt less strongly connected to the community when at Pardes took less advantage of support upon graduation.)

Step 2: The connection to the learning community must be worthwhile

When we speak of a learning community, we assume that there is a certain amount of risk involved – exposing one’s teaching or beliefs to the scrutiny of others. Minimally, being part of a learning community requires an investment of time and energy, for example, attending workshops, participating in conference calls, collaborating with colleagues, or sharing of one’s knowledge. Members are motivated to take the risks and give of their time when they perceive that there are evident returns on their investment. Without such returns, members will become less connected over time – which was our experience with our alumni.

What elements does a strong learning community offer that would attract its members to invest and participate? The next sections lay out the various options that the PEASP has provided, in the areas of individual support, in-service professional development and opportunities for collaboration and sharing. While this is not mentioned below, we were aware that much of our alumni’s commitment to teaching emanated from their passion for learning and Torah lishmah (that is, Torah study unconnected to what one is currently teaching). We understood that this had to be part of the support we provided. Thus, every gathering and every newsletter provides opportunities for Torah lishmah and divrei Torah, so that teachers can draw strength from and connect around their love for Jewish text study.

Support to individuals

Novice teachers

How do we support the novices in their first year of teaching? It was evident that the need for support during the transition period before the school year began was critical. ”What to do on day one? What supplies or systems must be in place? How do I work with a grade level team? Does the unit I prepared look ready to go?” While many of these questions are addressed during the PEP training, they suddenly take on more immediacy. We respond to this need by matching each new teacher entering the classroom with a veteran alumnus during the summer between graduation and starting in a new day school. The pairing seems to work best when we match a veteran and novice who already know one another or who live in the same city. The need for this kind of support often lessens weeks into teaching, as the novice teacher finds that support within his/her school.

Each novice teacher receives an intensive school visit (in the Fall of year one) by a PEASP professional who follows the novice through two full days, observing and then reflecting together. With the permission of our graduates, we also meet with mentors and administrators to get their perspectives. We follow-up our visit with a written summary to the new teacher of what we discussed and suggestions for next steps. The visit is non-threatening as there is no evaluative element. A number of day school administrators have shared with us the wish that they had that kind of time to devote solely to one teacher.

All teachers

We offer individual phone and e-mail support to all of our graduates. While the support and development was initially designed primarily for the novice teachers, we understood over time that the more veteran teachers had compelling needs as well. Most novice teachers seek help with immediate issues of classroom management, curriculum or interacting with parents, colleagues or administrators. Our more veteran teachers often seek career counseling. We were frankly surprised at how many of our more veteran teachers arrived at crossroads that might have resulted in their leaving the field, had they not been able to discuss options.

In the field

In our school visits we have observed a range of individual support to teachers provided by schools. Some elements of good practice include:

  • a trained, paid mentor (who is not the teacher’s supervisor) and who is available to observe and to meet with the mentee on a regular basis
  • administrators who continue to visit classrooms and meet on a regular basis with teachers (even when they are no longer novices and even after they have proven their competency); these administrators recognize and reinforce strengths and help teachers reflect on their challenges
  • utilizing written bulletins or newsletters to parents to highlight positive classroom events
  • peer mentoring where teachers work with colleagues to observe and reflect on their teaching; this is most effective when it is an actual program supported by administration

Professional development and growth

Novice teachers

We found that professional retreats were very important for first-year teachers, especially in the Fall semester of Year One, when these teachers encounter what is perhaps the most difficult time of their teaching careers. These retreats are a combination of professional development and individual support including workshops, sharing sessions, and informal opportunities for learning from colleagues and teachers. (They also include socializing with peers and individual meetings with staff, which reinforce the bonds to the Pardes community.)

The second PD opportunity for the first and second year teachers is an intensive summer curriculum workshop (either at Pardes in Jerusalem or at a retreat center in North America). Here novice teachers work with experienced teachers and administrators, primarily in developing their units for the coming year. It also includes workshops in areas such as differentiation, using technology in the classroom, classroom management, etc. Each year, input from participants shapes the workshop choices.

Veteran teachers

We understood the needs of our more veteran alumni to continue to develop as professionals. The annual retreat grew to include graduates from all of the cohorts, with a track specifically to address their needs as more experienced teachers. A number of the veterans served on the planning committee and took on leadership responsibilities within the retreat.

Over the years, we have offered the more veteran teachers a number of new initiatives. In 2010-11 we sponsored an action research project in tefillah wherein each participating teacher planned, instituted one change and studied its impact on their schools. The results of these initiatives led to some interesting and important changes within the individual schools – and insights for the field as well. In 2011-2012, the most veteran alumni were part of a year- long study project with Dr. Orit Kent of Brandeis University on the use of hevruta in the classroom. Participants did background reading, met with and learned from Dr. Kent, designed new worksheets and videoed classes – all in an attempt to raise the level of hevruta learning in their own classrooms.

In July 2013 we offered a leadership track in our Summer Curriculum Workshop to encourage those with a few years of teaching to take on more responsibilities as teacher leaders in their schools. They were introduced to protocols for leading sessions, ways of thinking about being teacher leaders, and guidance in approaching administrators to seek more responsibility in their schools.

In the field

Within schools, we have seen models of excellence in terms of professional development, despite the financial set-backs of the last few years. Some elements include:

  • a designated staff member who has responsibility for professional development and includes the voices of teachers in planning
  • schools that recognize the need for in-depth/on-going professional development opportunities, rather than quick one-shot exposures a school using “grand rounds” modeled after the medical profession; teachers watch videos of their classroom teaching and reflect as a group
  • schools that support outside professional development opportunities for their teachers; administrators think creatively to find funding for this, even when there is little money available

Collaboration/sharing/teaching is part of a learning community

For teachers to continue to grow, it is important to have opportunities to share, collaborate with, and teach others. One of our least costly (in terms of finances and time) has been our non-facilitated list-serve which allows PEP alumni to seek and share materials, advice or approaches to challenges. The list-serve has close to 100 discussion threads a year. A number of Pardes teachers also follow and contribute to the list serve, strengthening the sense of connection to the Pardes community.

Whenever we bring our alumni together, we make sure to include both success sharing sessions and slots for “critical incidents.” Success sharing gives teachers the opportunity to showcase what has worked well that could be of interest to their colleagues. These sessions always include an opportunity for asking questions and exploring how this approach/technique could be used in other settings. Colleagues offer feedback to the presenter that could be helpful in taking their work to the next step.

Critical incidents is a set protocol (Brookfield, 1995) allowing as few as 3 colleagues to address incidents that occurred with a student, a parent, a colleague or administrator that they have not fully resolved. This requires safe space, and empowers teachers to address some of the most difficult and troubling aspects of their work.

We give our veteran alumni opportunities to teach the newer graduates, by presenting workshops or facilitating think-tanks at retreats, coaching new teachers, writing columns for our newsletter, and, with training – which in itself is a professional development opportunity – serving as mentors during our week¬long intensive summer curriculum workshop, or for the month¬long student teaching segment for PEP students. In some of these instances, our alumni would have volunteered to do the work, yet we felt strongly that it was important to pay them. We see that some schools do compensate teachers for the “extra” work they do. We feel it is an important element in keeping people feeling positive about their learning community. In the field, schools vary in terms of opportunities offered to teachers to collaborate, share and teach one another. This is often reflected in the physical work space provided to teachers, the nature of faculty meetings, time set aside in the schedule for colleagues to meet, and how new curriculum is developed.

Other factors that strengthen a learning community

Personal connections do not necessarily advance the professional goals of teachers or of a learning community, yet it is consistent with the values of the Pardes learning community to recognize personal or professional accomplishments or life cycle events, reinforcing respect, caring and appreciation. The PEASP lists these personal and professional updates in a bi-monthly newsletter and reaches out on an individual level, as appropriate.

When planning a retreat or workshop for teachers, we believe that attention to the small details (be it welcome bags, food or special needs) is an indicator to participants that they are valued.

Finally, a sense of equity is important in maintaining community. We respect our graduates for who they are, not because they teach a particular grade level or hold a high administrative position. Each member needs to feel that he/she has an important role to play, and that everyone’s contribution is equally valued.

Summary

We want to keep our best teachers in the field. To do so, we need to support them, help them grow and develop and keep their passion alive for the profession. What better testimony to the importance of a strong learning community, than the words of one of our alumni on an anonymous feedback form:

Being a Pardes Educator is a tremendous thing. The program fights burnout by supporting us, helping us feel seen and appreciated, and framing our work as Holy Work. This goes a long way in helping us in the late-night lesson planning and chaotic end-of-day H blocks. We’re doing this as a life’s passion, and in service of our deepest selves and our communities. Without retreats/conferences like this, I’d feel cut off from my mother institution, and from my brothers and sisters out there in the field. Coming together is essential for feeling like part of a movement, a transformation of the way we think about and run our classrooms. It keeps me in love with my work, year after year.

References

Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher. Jossey­Bass: San Francisco.

Keep Learning

Overcoming Jewish Illiteracy

Posted by David Bernstein on February 1, 2015