Thought Leadership in Action

Thought Leadership in Action

What does Good Teacher Training Look Like?

Throughout my career as a Jewish educator, I have found myself drawn to programs that give educators ongoing opportunities to grow and learn.  I found it first at Kesher, the Community Hebrew School After School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and then at Genesis, the summer program for high school students at Brandeis University in Boston.  Both invested tremendous time and energy in teacher training and curriculum development.

At Kesher, the children would arrive at 2:30 p.m., but teachers started three hours earlier at 11:30 a.m.  It was highly unusual for an afternoon Hebrew school to provide so much time for teacher preparation.  The direct result was highly creative and productive supplementary Jewish education.  At Genesis, each educator was paired with a mentor for individual advisory attention all summer long and practiced reflective learning in weekly group meetings.

I spent 14 professional years at Brandeis, the last three as Director of Genesis.  To coach and inspire faculty was core to our mission.  We knew that the quality of our program hinged on our educators’ personal and professional growth; we also knew this would not occur by spontaneous combustion.  There were two necessary conditions:  (1) program leaders who prioritized professional learning; and (2) educators who valued the effort required and welcomed mentorship.

The key to our celebrated success at Genesis lay in hiring educators who brought both teaching experience and enthusiasm for professional growth.  During our interview process, we described the teacher learning available and asked applicants what skills they might improve over the summer.  Almost every candidate evinced excitement at the prospect of time on the job devoted to their own learning, but those who ultimately proved most successful were the ones who spoke honestly about their track record and had the confidence to tackle self-improvement.

My experience, as an educator and coach, convinces me that the strongest educational programs offer this level of professional enhancement to their teaching staff.  Regrettably, not every school or program makes it a priority.  Many do not afford educators the time to step back and review their progress, what they are achieving with their students, and how they are achieving it.  It takes considerable leadership focus to initiate and build in the right administrative structure to get this done.

Organizational planning is essential.  Even the most naturally reflective educators get busy with the everyday challenges:  children needing attention, parents needing dialogue, new projects, and so on.  The key is to structure a routine that carves out time for teacher learning on a regular basis.

A mentoring routine extricates teachers from classroom duties to attend to the theoretical aspects of how they teach, how their students respond, and how they could improve.  Periodic professional development days are not enough.  While the full day removes teachers from class to meet new ideas, it cannot offer them meaningful exploration into how to apply the new ideas.  Experience tells me that the most influence on enhancing educators’ skills comes through ongoing mentoring, combined with periodic focused learning.

When I brought my children to The Toronto Heschel School four years ago, part of the draw was the quality of its teaching staff and the overall thoughtful educational environment.  I did not know the kind of teacher support provided, but the results looked good.  I was thrilled to discover that the school was developing an innovative model of peer mentorship for its teachers called the Learning Centre.

What is The Toronto Heschel Learning Centre?

The Toronto Heschel Learning Centre is an exceptional and unique teacher-training model.  It was established to attain, activate, and maintain several critical streams of excellence in the school.  As a school leadership forum, it contemplates the school as a whole – curriculum, school culture, and operations.

The Learning Centre demonstrates the school’s philosophy of excellence through continuous learning, reinforcing the twin fundamentals of this ethos:  academic excellence and professional excellence.  The model recognizes that school leaders bring different strengths to the mission and that structured collaboration between colleagues shares these talents throughout the organization and across leadership ranks.  Large corporations have department champions who ensure their teams are supported and advanced; small organizations mentor key individuals with personalized training to broaden horizons and hone skills; Jewish study groups enrich learners’ minds and delve into what makes us tick and who we are.  The Toronto Heschel Learning Centre is all of this.

Each year the Learning Centre designates a cohort of teachers and department heads, each with expertise in a particular academic discipline, to participate as a team in the Centre.  As a whole, the team collaborates weekly on teaching method and technique.  Team members clarify, innovate, codify, and consolidate the school curriculum on an ongoing basis; their goal is to verify effective delivery of the curriculum and school culture to the students and share best practices.  Each team member also mentors other teachers in the school, meeting regularly to troubleshoot classroom teaching challenges and offer expertise on the academic discipline that is their specialty.

It is a visible cycle of appreciable betterment.  Through their work with individual teachers and their systematic collaboration at team meetings, the mentors advance their own skills and observe leadership lessons across the team.  This augments their contributions to the Learning Centre’s evolving roster of best practices, which, in turn, spreads the expertise across the teaching faculty, reaching ultimately to the children’s experience at school.  The children provide their teachers with never-ending new challenges, so again the Learning Centre experts are called in and the cycle is renewed.

The Learning Centre team also represents the school at the Shalom Hartman Senior Educators Forum, which is held eight months of the year.  Sponsored by The Lola Stein Institute, Learning Centre members study Jewish text with world-class scholars, deepening their Judaic learning and connecting with educational leaders from other day and congregational schools in the Toronto area.

Toronto Heschel Head of School Greg Beiles told me about the changes that he has seen in the school and among the staff since the Learning Centre was launched:

The approach has created many positive outcomes:  New teachers see veteran teachers as having expertise.  Teachers see themselves as having expertise…Years ago, I used to hear conversations in the staff room where teachers would tell other teachers that something was challenging in their class but that they did not want to talk about it.  This is not how things are now…I hope we continue to create a place where colleagues want to share ideas and challenges with each other.  It is our collective responsibility to create the best possible learning environment for children.

This model of teachers learning and reflecting collaboratively with a common goal to improve our children’s learning is fascinating.  It may be one of the “best kept secrets” of the school.  I feel that parents and the Toronto community should know more about what goes on in the Learning Centre at Toronto Heschel.  We want our children to become learners who strive for their best, ask questions thoughtfully, and think critically.  It is comforting to know that their school nurtures this in its teachers

I am reminded of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous statement, “The teacher is the text the students never forget.” When we raise up our teachers and school leaders through professionalism and inspiration, we help our children become the learners we know they can be.

Dvora Goodman , Coordinator

Dvora Goodman is a Jewish educator with over twenty five years of experience in educational administration and Jewish experiential learning in various settings. She is the coordinator of The Lola Stein Institute. She is also an educational consultant to various Jewish educational organizations. Her current projects include UJA Federation of Greater Toronto where she has been coaching supplementary school leaders in the Greater Toronto area, and the iCenter for Israel Education where she has been helping Jewish camps and Jewish day schools infuse Israel into their settings.


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