Thursday, May 31, 2012

Defeat of a Jewish Educator

Defeat of a Jewish Educator! So, I have been in the field of Jewish Education for thirty seven years (okay, that really sounds strange to say!) and I will soon be leaving the field that I have loved so much and in which I have found so much happiness and fulfillment. Why? Because the pain and disappointment that I have absorbed during the last few years has overshadowed the joys and fulfillment that I have found in this amazing journey during all of those years. Oh, and by the way, I am well aware that I am not the only one…. I am joining the ranks of more than a few wonderful colleagues whose leaving definitely left a void in this most important endeavor. I remember well when I decided to become a Jewish educator. I was five years old and I went to Sunday School. I loved Sunday School – perhaps due to the fact that everything one does at the age of five is still new and exciting, or maybe because I was little and became sort of a mascot in the Orthodox shul in which that Sunday School was located, which actually started one fall day when my parents accidentally turned our clocks FORWARD instead of backward, and I arrive for class, TWO FULL HOURS early. That was my first Shaharit minyan experience. I always loved learning about all things Jewish, and even when I was angry and vexed with G-d (and there have most certainly been those times) I was still learning. These teachings and values became my template for living early on. So, back to my pivotal life decision! I came back from school and my parents asked me how I liked it. I told them I LOVED Hebrew School (okay, now stop laughing everyone!) but that I thought things could be taught better and that’s what I wanted to do with my life. And so I did or at least tried to do so! And here I am after 37 years; thousands and thousands of students; so many teachers and principals that I have worked with as a colleague, director, and consultant; and countless lessons and stories that are in my heart and this is where they will stay as I move on to new adventures. In spite of all of this, I am leaving Jewish education and here are the reasons why in as concise and specific terms as possible. 1. Too often in Jewish Education, educators are not the ones who are making pivotal decisions. Through the years, I have served in various educational leadership positions in different institutions. I have been a Director, Principal, Department Head and held other various appointments. Whatever I have done, I have always claimed to be part of Educational Leadership and NOT ADMINISTRATION! There is an important difference. I have never held an Educational Leadership position without teaching and being an integral and actively participating member of the learning culture of the institution. Further, I am proud to say I never earned a salary that was excessive (after all this is supposed to be a non-profit business, right?). Now with some of our schools hiring CEO types in isolated offices and with excessively large salaries that are breaking the back of the schools they serve (that may exist in buildings that they can ill afford as well), and layers of bureaucracy before one even gets to the educators, decision making can often have little to do with educational concerns and reality. 2. A colleague of mine once said that her father, who was an accountant, did not understand schools and their governance. He stated that he would work with one client at a time whereas the teacher has to multi-task continually, serving the needs of many different students with different needs simultaneously. Imagine if you were with an entire committee that would go to protest at your physician’s doctor office; let me know how far you get. Yet, in trying to meet more and more needs of students in terms of learning differences, learning styles, family issues, psychological needs, and doing so with not enough support in too many cases…. Well you get the picture. 3. If the CEO/Isolated School Leader (and of course, I know many of our Educational Directors are NOT this, but I am overstating the case to make the point, because unfortunately, this IS reality for some, and that means too many of our schools) does not fully understand the school and its reality and needs, and is the chosen advocate for the school in the larger community to the Jewish Federation, potential donors, synagogues, other institutions, and such, well -- what impression are they getting? 4. In some of our communities, TUITION IS TOO HIGH! Should I say that again? Are we providing Jewish Day School education (a la parochial models such as Catholic schools) or are we fancy private schools for Jewish kids, sometimes with just a little bit of Jewish Studies on the side? Again, this is not always the case, but if it is in your town or community and the system is struggling, hmmmmmmm, high tuition, highly paid administration, big building – Consider this: these schools and these directors DID NOT look like this twenty five years ago! For that matter, most of the educational institutions that are providing good solid experiences today do not either! So, let’s fess up – are we fancy private schools or Jewish Day Schools? 5. As a consultant who worked in many schools and communities throughout North America and as someone who has seen Jewish Day Schools from all different angles, too often these schools do not have a clear mission. If we do not know what we want and need to be, how do we become those things? Interestingly enough, now there is no money for consultants, for qualitative curriculum work (If one more community calls me and says they really want me to come and help them, but cannot pay me, can I do it? --- well, you get the point!) So back to those missions and realizing what the school is and what it is not…. someone has to figure this one out. A friend and colleague from many years ago called recently and we were chatting. She’s actually with a foundation and asked me why it feels like Jewish Education is imploding. Simply, I told her, we grew up and did not do a very good job of it! Too many Jewish Educational institutions are closing, demographics are showing lower numbers due to assimilation, where people live, which communities can and cannot support their Jewish educational institutions, and while there is no money for curriculum development and working with these schools in a consultative and supportive manner, more demographic studies show an avalanche of problems. Here’s an idea, take some of the money that goes into these studies, bring some of those high salaries (again, I am NOT talking about you, my friends who are doing really wonderful things and good work and getting paid appropriate amounts) and go …. hire good consultants and/or learn to do proper strategic educational planning and development! Or sit down, and figure out what you are teaching instead of how to purchase a bigger building in which to teach. Okay, enough of my soapbox diatribe. I am leaving. I will still be a teacher (yes, that still is my favorite part, referencing my last blog post), and I will still try to make this a better world, BUT I will no longer be doing so as a Jewish educator! Oh and yes, I am sad about that!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I am a ….. TEACHER and I Love It!

In the movie Footnote by Joseph Cedar (this year’s Israeli entry for Best Foreign Film Oscar), we see a poignant and at often times painful story about a father and son who, though at odds about life, learning and so much else, are at the end of the day both …… teachers. By the way, I HIGHLY recommend the movie as an insight into some fundamental aspects of our lives collectively as learners and as Jews and as human beings. In a fairly early scene (don’t worry, I won’t give away the movie!) we see how the son wants his father to be someone important and while his father is a college professor, a researcher, a Biblical and philology scholar; he simply states that he is a TEACHER! Who would be proud of being a teacher, according to the musings of the son? As they relate to each other and to their respective worlds, you see frustration of lost dreams, wonder at the value of one’s work and so much else that one contemplates as most, if not all, of his career is behind him. A real Kohelet moment if you will, you know, “Everything under the sun is futile,” “what is the purpose of a man’s labor?” and so on. By the way, I also recommend reading this treatise attributed by many to King Solomon in our Tanach (also known as Ecclesiastes in English) if you have not done so already. There you go, one book and one movie for your summer entertainment (and learning) list! So I have been a TEACHER for the past 37 years (ouch!) and I hope to continue for many to come. Oh yes, I have lectured, published, run schools, run Bureaus of Jewish Education, consulted, and done so much else, but at the end of the day all of these different involvements that pepper my resume add up to TEACHER, this is what I am (and proudly so!) and this is what I will continue to be no matter what chapters play out in my future professional activities. I grew up with the word “Melamed” thrown around a lot. A Melamed is a revered teacher in Hebrew, but the word actually means “to bring about learning.” In other words, in Jewish/Hebrew culture, a teacher is seen within the perspective of facilitating the activity of learning. It is accountable and defined beyond itself, as opposed to English dictionaries who define teacher often as “one who teaches.” Years ago, I was a member of a wonderful organization called the Coalition on Alternatives in Jewish Education. Their motto was “Lilmod uLeLamed” -- “to learn and to teach.” I often joke that I am in Grade 52, that is, I have been in school that long and am still learning. I really believe that the most important thing I bring to my classes, which I refer to as “learning circles”, is my experience as a learner, trying to inspire other learning. This is a process that remains exciting, fresh and new. This is the greatest perk of teaching as far as I can see; the ability to get paid and be a professional whose purpose is to keep learning and facilitating that process for others. This is the TEACHER that I think the father in Footnote had in mind; and this is the type of professional our best teachers are. Oh yes, and by the way, before I forget, this is National Educator’s Week, so go hug a teacher, thank a teacher, or acknowledge a teacher…. And for those of us who are in fact TEACHERS, YAY US! Keep on learnin’!