‘Who’s going to teach our kids?’
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‘Who’s going to teach our kids?’

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From left, Talya Rand, Pnina Cohen, and Lottie Kestenbaum work on an assignment for their teacher training course.

I don’t think there’s any way to better learn something than to be pushed into the middle of it and do it hands on,” commented a Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School senior on an evaluation form for a teacher-training elective she recently completed. “It really gave me a feel for teaching.”

The object of the elective course, sponsored by the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Jewish Educational Service, is to address a looming teacher shortage in Jewish day schools.

“The issue is, who’s going to teach our kids?” said Minna Heilpern, JES director. “There are not enough educators coming down the pike, and not enough [graduate] schools for Jewish education. We could already see the problem coming 10 years ago.”

That was when Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies Principal Fred Nagler secured a continuity grant from the federation and asked Heilpern and faculty member Bruce Ettinger to use it toward promoting education as a profession.

Heilpern and Ettinger created a curriculum for BCHSJS – a Sunday program for public high school students – called “Hemshech (Continuity): Inspiring the Next Generation of Jewish Educators.” After a few years, they decided to adapt the program for area yeshiva high school seniors interested in exploring a teaching career.

“The idea is to plant the seeds while they’re still in high school, to give them opportunities to test out teaching as a profession,” said Heilpern, who has taught the one-semester, twice-weekly course at the Frisch School in Paramus and at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck.

Ma’ayanot Principal Rookie Billet said Hemshech “suits the aspirations of some of our students. They appreciate a course that allows and encourages them to reflect on Jewish education in a meaningful, hands-on way. The course offers a taste of Jewish education as a career, and encourages creativity through original projects and assignments.”

The interactive class attempts to model and analyze what is effective. “The student are experiencing and ‘unpacking’ teaching,” said Heilpern.

This past semester, her 10 Ma’ayanot girls also observed teachers in action at Yavneh Academy and Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, and at Solomon Schechter Day School in New Milford, with an eye toward understanding classroom management and teaching strategies.

“We also looked at professional films about teaching and even analyzed [the 1996 fantasy film] ‘Matilda’ for the different poses of teachers and classroom environments it presents,” said Heilpern.

The students studied how noted “horse whisperer” Monty Roberts applies his innovative horse-taming theories to classroom settings, and they wrote their own lesson plans and educational games. Fifth-grade teacher Talia Waizman came from the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey for a Q&A session with the girls, and Heilpern brought in her infant granddaughter for a hands-on demo of Piaget’s cognitive developmental stages.

“We try to look at things from a broad and unusual angle to extrapolate pedagogic theory,” said Heilpern.

Some of her former BCHJS students have gone onto teaching careers, she said, not just in schools but also in more informal settings such as youth groups, camps, campus Hillel houses, and family education programs. One of her Ma’ayanot students will be interning at Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland. “There are all different ways this can play out,” she said.

The teacher shortage is a product of several factors, Heilpern explained. “People are not going into the field because it’s poorly paid and not well-respected despite past Jewish attitudes toward education,” she said. “Parents don’t necessarily encourage their kids to go into Jewish education. And there is no real career track seen; it seems that you have few choices but to be either a teacher or principal. However, there are other leadership roles available, such as teacher mentoring within schools.”

On their evaluation forms, many of the Hemshech students indicated that the school visits were their favorite part: “Hemshech helped me realize that I want to spend my life teaching children,” one student wrote. “I think it’s a very rewarding and fun job.”

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