Our “Meet the Community” blog column gives Heschel families the opportunity to get to know some of the people who make a difference around The Toronto Heschel School. This month, we are featuring Morah Malka Regan, Heschel’s longest-serving staff member. She shares what it was like in the early days of Heschel, and some of her favourite things about the school.
Heschel Hive (HH): Morah Malka, how long have you been at The Toronto Heschel School, and in what capacities?
Malka Regan (MR): I’ve been an educator at THS since January of the first year Heschel opened its doors. I met with Gail Baker (Principal) and Baruch Rand (Head of School) in late August 1996. The school was fully staffed, but I felt such a strong sense of community and warmth in the school that I offered to volunteer while working elsewhere. I enjoyed my experience very much, working with the teachers and learning from Gail. When a position opened up in January, I jumped at the opportunity and didn’t look back.
I have worked as a Homeroom Teacher in Grades 1-4, Math Mentor, Curriculum Mentor, Elementary Division Head, Elementary Division Director, Child Study Coordinator, and currently, Grade 4 Master Teacher and Director of SEL (Social-Emotional Learning).
HH: Tell us about the early days of the school and how it has changed since then. Has the school’s approach remained similar?
MR: The first year THS opened, there were 52 students in total and we went from kindergarten up to a 2/3 split. It was really a warm environment and an incredibly collegial atmosphere. We had all of these new families taking a chance on the school and they were very invested. The parents were looking for something different for their kids in a Jewish day school, and I think they found it at Heschel.
Everybody wore multiple hats, so the founders – Gail, Baruch, Ellen, Rachel, and Judith – all taught, as well as mentored the teachers. It was all hands on deck. It was a very supportive environment for teachers. I always felt safe learning and taking risks in a judgment-free environment, and I was happy to get feedback and advice. It was a wonderful place to work and grow as an educator.
The school has definitely remained similar in its focus on building community among the parent body, teachers, and students. The families are still incredibly involved.
The school continues to have an integrated approach across disciplines. We know that children naturally integrate and assimilate information and Heschel has always understood that. Students don’t just think in Math or in Language or in Science; the disciplines overlap and intermingle. Our brains are already wired to do that, yet in many schools, these disciplines are fairly isolated. We recognize the importance of teaching our students the skills needed to move forward in a strategic and conceptual understanding as well as in terms of proficiency. We continue to ensure that our students’ learning experience is an interesting, engaging, and rich experience. There is space made for hands-on work, chaveruta work, and independent work; there’s mastery and there is practice, ensuring comprehension and a full understanding. That has really remained the same.
The understanding that we need to teach and recognize the whole child has remained constant for me. I think every child, every human being, needs to be seen and understood. Learning can’t happen without that, or at least it makes it very, very difficult.
I think what has changed is that when Heschel began, we didn’t really have a curriculum; it was being developed on the ground. Curriculum development continues, although now much has been documented and codified. We have materials you can present to a teacher to say, for example, this is how we teach the Spirit of Canada. Early on, the founders recognized that there weren’t really any textbooks that spoke directly to the way that we were trying to teach. We were pulling from here and there, really sorting through and saying: this is useful in this way, but how do we tweak it so that it teaches the way that we want to? This was required in the development of our teaching practices. A lot of things are now much more documented and easily presented.
The staff has always been incredibly close, even when new people come and people go. When people come into the school, they feel it. It is one of the things that is a real draw for educators to our school.
HH: What have been some of the memorable highlights of your time at the school? We’re sure you have many.
MR: So many. A lot of my highlights are around meaningful connections with students and parents and colleagues. As an educator and a colleague, I feel so appreciative of the community that I am able to work with every day.
Some of my highlights have been the children’s performances. The novel study unit is always a massive highlight; watching the children read a novel, study it, turn it into a script and then perform it, the feeling of accomplishment that you see in these children is tremendous and the parents are always so proud. The experience brings out skills and joy in the children that maybe they wouldn’t have tapped into otherwise and encourages them to take risks. When you see children take a risk and put themselves out there and feel success, that’s really what it’s all about.
The Chanukkah concert is always beautiful, seeing not just parents but grandparents or aunts and uncles all come together to celebrate the incredible talent and spirit of the Heschel community. Watching the students grow from when they’re really young to graduating is a highlight, of course. I also enjoy when graduates come back to visit or to volunteer and you see these well-rounded children, who are now young adults, who have all found their place in the world.
I don’t know if I’d call it a highlight, but on sad occasions, you really feel the community come together for families in such a special, meaningful, heartfelt, and authentic way: how can we help you?
Even little things are highlights, like engaging and successful moments in class or, when parents have told me that something will happen and the child will bring up Middat Hashavuah, saying something like: “Oh! Good example of being flexible!” (laughs)
HH: Tell us about your role as the Director of Social-Emotional Learning.
MR: This role is very important to me. I think that our social-emotional learning is an ongoing, lifelong process. There are some skills that we learn from our families; each of us have different strengths in terms of our social-emotional being and we all have areas in which we struggle or need to work on. I think in our current day and age it is really important, given the huge role that technology plays in our day-to-day lives. Social media is frightening to me for our children. If students are upset by a peer, things that students would have had to say to their face can now be said while hiding behind a screen, allowing people to say things that they wouldn’t say in person. During online learning, students were on a chat and one person wrote, “You’re so annoying.” I try to model it using their parents. So I’ll say, “If your parent was talking to their friend and the friend upset them, would they just come out and say, ‘You’re so annoying’?” The kids really need more support in how to engage with each other with Derekh Eretz, which at Heschel means acting with respect and out of kindness and understanding for our fellow human beings. Students need to learn how to socialize in meaningful ways, being true to ourselves and self-advocating, but also in a way that furthers relationships, rather than detracts from them, and a lot of that is about communication.
We’ve developed a curriculum unique to Heschel, which we are currently piloting in Grades 3-5, in which we take the Middat Hashavuah, the lesson from the week’s parshah, and we teach it through a social-emotional lens. There are interactive lessons twice a week with a lot of deep discussion and then practice of this middah. For example, for a middah like, “Be Precise,” we can be precise in many ways: in our math work, in writing our names and the date, and the spelling list. We can also be precise in our words, thinking carefully before we speak, and in our reactions, and we can be precise in reading the room. How do I enter a room? Look around, what’s happening here? It doesn’t happen often in my own class because they’ve learned, but if someone enters the room while talking, I’ll say “Please leave and read the room.” Then they come back in and they’ve read the room. That’s a social skill you need throughout life. You don’t want to be one of those people who just barges into conversations and inserts yourself and creates a scene, so the things that they’re learning now at this age, and will continue to practice as they grow, are things that are hopefully going to help them develop their skills throughout life.
Another part of my role is that I’m involved in dealing with situations that arise not necessarily through the middah but let’s say in Grade 4, there’s a social issue that keeps arising. How are we going to deal with this as educators in this grade? What activities should we do? Should we do a role play, should we have a special lunch about this? What practice can we provide the students to get the kids where we really want them to go? Some of that is working with small groups of kids, and sometimes it could be class-wide or grade-wide. I do a lot of that type of work as situations arise.
I work closely with the Child Study Team. There is often overlap between Child Study and Social-Emotional Learning, but they also can be separate in some situations, for example, if a few girls at recess are having hard feelings, we unpack it and teach perspective once again. A lot of what we do is giving them the language to use. The students can all tell you what’s not nice or nice, what’s mean and what’s kind, and how to be welcoming, but we’re really trying to teach them words to use, like “Hey, you want to join us?” or “You hurt my feelings” or “Can we talk about this?” instead of saying “You’re bossy.”/ “No I’m not !”
HH: What is the relationship between the weekly middot and social-emotional learning?
MR: The Torah teaches us valuable ethical life lessons. Some of them are what to do, and some of them are what not to do. We see varied emotion and behaviour throughout the Torah, and we learn resilience, we learn compassion, we see rage, we see revenge, we see all of these things, so the parshah is teaching social-emotional learning. We’re just pulling out the pieces that we feel are the most relevant for right now and at the age and stage and for our derekh eretz vision at our school.
Middat Hashavuah is taught throughout the school and throughout the grades, and it is deliberately taught weekly. We recognize that we need to make it meaningful with something that children can connect at their age and stage, and then they need to practice it. We are creating mechanisms to make sure that we revisit them because you don’t want to practice the skill just for a week. The more we do this, the more children see things in their lives around them and say, oh, that’s a good expression of the middah. For example, when we wrote letters to refugee children in Ukraine, one of the kids said, you know, we should really think about this, because we should offer some of what we have, which was our middah that week. Some of these children have left their homes and they don’t have strollers, they don’t have cribs, we should donate money. I said that is a beautiful way to offer what we have. Also, we’re offering some of what we have now when we’re writing them kind, hopeful words; we’re offering our emotion and creativity and thought and care.
HH: What’s your favourite element of the Grade 4 curriculum?
MR: I mentioned earlier that I love novel studies, but The Family History Project also is so meaningful. The students choose somebody alive or who has passed away in the family and they either interview them directly or interview other family members about them. Sometimes the subject is a grandparent or even a parent who has passed away, and they learn about things that were similar and different about them, about hobbies and fun games that they played when they were children, and about that family member’s childhood environment. Even as another adult, hearing about it is fascinating. It teaches students about our world and gives them a much wider perspective, not only about the person that they see now or have heard about, but about our own lives. It really helps them see how much harder things were long ago, but also that there was joy.
Grade 4 has a tremendous curriculum. The Spirit of Canada Unit is a beautiful way to learn about our country through artifacts, songs, poetry, and Canadian Art. It’s a wonderful way to teach it and it’s different from how students would learn it anywhere else.
HH: What do you like to do in your spare time?
MR: When I have time, I love to read. I would divide that reading time between beautiful novels, mysteries, and reading about children from the experts on topics such as self-regulation, understanding the whole child, learning disabilities, and AHDH and how it presents differently in girls and boys.
I find doing puzzles very soothing and calming so I spend quite a bit of my free time doing puzzles. I leave them out on a puzzle board, so I can move it from room to room when people actually have to eat at my table!
In the summer or in nice weather, I paint. I discovered that a couple of years ago. I don’t have a studio area inside, so I go out in my backyard and I just go where the paint takes me. I have a few of my paintings in my office and I have some in my living room. One of the students in my office yesterday remarked that my paintings were so soothing, which is how I feel when I paint them.
I love mysteries so I will watch any good British mystery series; I find British series more interesting.
HH: Which one would you recommend?
MR: I loved Shetland and Broadchurch, Inspector Morse, those are good. Prime Suspect is an old one, but so good, with Helen Mirren.
And, of course, this goes without saying, I think everyone says it, I do love my family time. I greatly value my family members and really appreciate spending time with them. Often people ask, “Are you going away?” Sure, I’d love to, but I’m also just happy to be home in a relaxed environment.
I do quite a bit of mindfulness activities now and it helps me throughout my day. That’s something I find enjoyable that I didn’t find enjoyable years ago, but now I find that really works.
I love just being outdoors in the summer and going for long walks. I’ve been taking Stuart Shanker’s self-regulation courses, which I find illuminating in many ways. You’re learning from him, but also from his colleagues in all different areas of education, so those are highly recommended. Truthfully, it’s work but it’s worth it; it’s valuable.
HH: To end things off, if aliens were to land on earth tomorrow and invited you to go with them on their spaceship would you go, given a choice?
MR: The answer would be no! I have a fulfilling life here. I’m happy with what I have, I’m happy with the people I work with, I love my family. I think it’s easy for people to think the grass is always greener on the other side, but we don’t know that to be true. I think the grass is pretty green on my side, so I’d be sticking around.