For kids to learn effectively, their teachers need to upgrade their own skills throughout their careers, according to Vivian Troen, codirector of a teacher learning project at the Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University.
“You stultify if you don’t have opportunities for growth,” Troen told a gathering of 75 Jewish day school teachers at a Dec. 7 seminar in Livingston. A teaching degree, Troen said, “only allows you to walk into the building. It is imperative for kids to learn but it is also essential for teachers to learn, and most schools are not set up to support teacher learning.”
The seminar, held at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, was organized as part of “The Quest for Teaching Excellence,” a four-year program established in 2011 by the MetroWest Day School Initiative.
The Quest program is funded through a $1 million grant from the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest. Additional support came from the JCF’s MetroWest Day School Community Fund.
The event drew participants from Kushner, Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph.
Originally planned as a gathering involving all 300 teachers in the schools, the event was scaled back after Superstorm Sandy. Organizers paid for substitute teachers to allow the schools to send as many staff members as they chose.
Troen’s approach to empowering and retaining teachers lies with mutually supportive teams — generally of no more than six teachers — who work together to share strategies and techniques and to help one another “reach their highest aspirations.”
Participants came to the seminar in teams already established in their respective schools, and worked within those groups on the challenges Troen put to them. She had met the previous evening with some of their leaders, to find out more about their schools and get an idea of where they stood on team work and mentoring.
The team approach to “induction,” or teacher-training, is especially helpful for beginners for whom there otherwise is a 50 percent attrition rate in the first five years — and probably higher at Jewish day schools, Troen said. Despite 30 years’ experience as a teacher and education specialist, she said, “I still change my practice all the time.”
Troen urged participants to leave with a teaching goal — even one they might already be fulfilling. Wendy Albers, the HAMC physical education and health teacher, who was there with Nancy Delman, a kindergarten teacher from HAMC, said her goal is to offer alternatives to unathletic kids disheartened by, for example, a gymnastic move.
“I ask the kids to learn different aspects of the task, each according to their ability, and I measure their progress accordingly,” she said.
Benefactor Paula Gottesman, who attended the seminar, said the question of educational excellence comes to the fore when parents select a school. “And who matters most when it comes to providing that quality? The teachers,” she said.