Arwen Kutner of Englewood teaches second and third grade at Yeshivat Noam in Paramus.
Last year was challenging.
Next year promises to be no less so.
She was glad, therefore, to be offered a six-day professional development course last month. “It was fantastic. A wonderful program,” she said.
The program was offered by Hidden Sparks, an organization founded in 2006 to help Jewish day schools better educate struggling learners who were falling through the cracks. Mostly, it does this by bringing an educational specialist or a psychologist into a school to train and coach eight to 10 teachers each year over a five-year period. Almost all of the Bergen County Jewish elementary schools have taken part in this program.
“The goal is to help improve the whole school’s ability to reach the struggling students,” Debbie Niderberg, the organization’s executive director, said.
In past summers, Hidden Sparks has offered a four-day course focusing on helping teachers understand the way children learn and behave.
This year, though, the organization saw the need for what it called a summit — six mornings of online teacher training. Ms. Niderberg reported that she talked to a number of school principals. This is what she said that they told her: “Our teachers pivoted remarkably well in March, but if this is going to happen again next year, we have to be far better prepared.”
The program that emerged, in consultation with day school principals and educators from the Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan, focused on two of the needs that the teachers felt most deeply, Ms. Niderberg said.
“They need help dealing with students as they come back to school — hopefully,” she said. “Students will have a variety of issues they are dealing with: loss, isolation, anxiety. Teachers need guidance in helping kids unpack these emotions. The teachers will need a toolbox of social and emotional skills.
“Second, the teachers will need to create classrooms that will help kids feel connected, whether they’re onsite or remote. In Jewish day schools, there’s often such a pressure to cover all the academics that sometimes teachers don’t realize the importance of time spent on social and emotional learning.”
Ms. Kuttner said that the summit was “a very deep dive into how to start the new year.” The program featured “a little bit of time with a presenter from Bank Street, and a lot of time in breakout rooms, where the conversation was really rich,” she continued. “We some time processing our own experiences so far. We also talked a lot about the value of meeting the emotional needs of students. Sometimes communities outside of the school don’t understand why it’s important to the emotional needs of schools. There’s a neurological need: If a student is in crisis, they’re unable to learn.
“We talked about team building in the classroom, developing feelings of trust. We talked about writing assignments that help children express themselves and learn the language of their feelings, and how how learning about these things can help in teaching literature or even math throughout the day.
“This is about how you create a person who can be a functioning member of society, who works with other people and nurtures other people. It’s not just teaching them how to read and write.”
Ms. Kuttner said that the hardest part of teaching remotely last spring was that “when things did not go right, it was difficult to intervene. In real life, if a student has lost their focus, I can quietly and respectfully walk to their desk and tap on it.” That’s not quite as easy on Zoom.
But there were benefits to that experience as well, she said. “I was so grateful for the chance for parents to see what we do. It strengthened the relationship with some of the parents. We spoke frequently. They could see actively what was going on.”
Looking ahead, “one of the challenges is that there needs to be so much attention on the logistical details now. We’re having school meetings now and talking about maps and Plexiglass and rules and layouts of things.”
So far, the school meetings have focused on logistics, not on how to teach in this new socially distanced world. But in the Hidden Sparks seminar, “we talked about how to use the new boundaries for our advantage,” Ms. Kuttner said. “Instead of being depressed by the problem of how to make a relationship with a child that you can’t come close to, how can you stick post-it notes on the Plexiglass shield?
Sheera Seplowitz of Monsey teaches kindergarten at the Moriah School of Englewood. “We always try to create an atmosphere where the children feel comfortable, feel safe, feel supportive,” she said. “This year it’s particularly important.
“One of the ideas in the summit that resonated to me was being able to mesh the social and emotional needs of the children together with their academic needs. Neither can come at the cost of the other. We want to engender good feelings, the safe and comfortable feelings of the children, while putting in literacy and math and mixing that all together — while not knowing where we may be on any given day, whether face to face or learning on a virtual platform.”
She said that as the plans are taking shape at Moriah, “Each classroom will be its own pod or bubble. Children will spend the bulk of the day in their own classroom with their teacher or teachers, leaving the room only for recess in a given time or space for that group. All the specials — music, art, lunch — will take place in the classroom. When a teacher comes to teach music, for example, there may be Plexiglass shields or whatever protocol needs to be in place.”
As for last year and the sudden pivot to distance learning, “We swung into it,” Ms. Seplowitz said. “We gave it our all. The children learned. They grew. Perhaps not the same way they would have with person-to-person learning, but perhaps in different ways, and in extra ways they would not have otherwise.
“They have a natural love of learning and enthusiasm and caring about each other that came through even in the virtual learning.”
Leah Kaufman of Fair Lawn teaches kindergarten at Yeshivat He’atid in Teaneck. “It was a wonderful experience, meeting teachers from all over from all different levels of the educational field,” she said about the summit. “I took away a lot of different resources. In a normal summer I wouldn’t have the opportunity. It’s the first summer I haven’t worked at a camp in many years.
“I’m happy I had the time to do this professional development. I feel like Hidden Sparks really gave me tools to move forward and make this experience as successful as possible.”