This post is the first of a series about different ways a teacher can become a teacher-leader.
I have only taught professionally at one school – the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in Manhattan. Teaching in the high school, I share a department with colleagues whom I adore as both individuals and as pedagogues. They are an inspiration to me, from how much they care about their students to the passion they exude for constantly developing their practice and teaching goals. My department also holds a very clear vision of what aspects of the study of Jewish text are most important, and our teaching practice reflects that vision.
In mentoring this summer at the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators’ Summer Curriculum Workshop, held at the Pearlstone Center outside of Baltimore, I had the opportunity to speak with and learn about my mentees’ schools. I thought it essential to get a picture of their schools (both in overall school culture and in departmental goals), as any curriculum lives as a part of the larger vision of “whole child.” In doing so, I was struck by a discovery – one that shook a core, long-held assumption.
I teach at a community high school. Without realizing, I had assumed that other community high schools would be more similar than different; would share a core set of values and perspectives on what makes a “complete” community school student of Jewish studies. In working with my mentees, however, I was shocked at just how different other schools approach study of the very same texts. It was such a joy to discover so many different values emerging at different schools, and unpacking with my mentees where they see their curricula fitting into those values (Skill versus content? Breadth versus depth? Hebrew versus English?). It was so exciting because I suddenly realized that there is so much to gain by exploring the work being done at other schools.
In our daily life as teachers, gaining exposure to and internalizing the work that others in the field are doing is very difficult; there often isn’t the time in the day to properly collaborate with and learn from colleagues within the school, so to reach out to external schools in a meaningful way seems nearly impossible. At the Summer Curriculum Workshop, however, it was such a privilege to build my understanding of the different approaches at other schools, and to then bring that back as points of discussion to further improve my own and our departmental practice at Heschel.
Mentoring got me more fired up to teach than ever before. It was invigorating to process through the challenges of other teachers that were both familiar in content and foreign in approach. It was uplifting to have teachers come to me with problems they face in their classrooms, and to realize that I have developed a significant toolbox from which to pull ideas. More than anything, it allowed me to realize that I don’t teach on the Island of Heschel, but rather that I share the burden and the privilege of teaching Jewish text with a multitude of excited, passionate, caring, thoughtful, frustrated, determined, and soulful Jewish educators. And I want to do everything I can to make us all even better at this shared calling.