Guest Blog

Lessons from the Field: Ayeka’s Professional Development of Educators

– by Michal Fox Smart

July 9th, 2019

At Ayeka, we believe that Jewish education must be broadened to engage the whole student in his or her uniqueness: mind, body, heart, and imagination.  Only when students personally connect with the material will they find it truly meaningful. We partner with six day schools of different denominations across the country to train teachers in our unique pedagogy of Soulful Education.  Our goal is to nurture the inner lives of the teachers themselves and to provide them with the tools to personally, emotionally, and spiritually engage their students. As we near the end of year one, we have successes, challenges, and questions to share.

New Paradigm for Jewish Education
Ayeka shifts the paradigm of Jewish education; as a result, operative questions change. The student no longer asks, “What does this text mean?” but rather, “what does this text mean to me?” The teacher no longer asks, “Have the students mastered the material?” but rather, “Now that the students have mastered the material, how will it impact their lives?”  The role of the teacher also changes, from expert source of information to role model of a Jew on a life-long journey of growth, also learning and seeking to grow by engaging in Torah study.

At leading schools across the country, this paradigm shift is beginning to take hold. Seasoned educators are aware of the disconnect sometimes experienced between their students and the curriculum and want help engaging them. They appreciate the opportunity to step back from the frenetic pace of the school day to become learners again, to hone their skills and refocus their vision, and to renew and deepen their own spiritual connections. Some have been teaching for decades without a clearly articulated philosophy of education. Many tell us that it has been years, even decades, since they personally studied the texts they teach. Now they can approach it anew with fresh eyes. Moreover, students of all ages respond positively to the opportunities for personal reflection, and want more.

Overcoming Challenges of Shifting to Soulful Education
At the same time, we’ve discovered that a shift of this kind is difficult for many teachers, who associate Torah learning with purely intellectual discourse.  For some, this paradigm challenges what they long held as the goals of Jewish education, as the dominant school culture, or as the expectations of parents. We have learned that running immersive training programs is not enough to achieve the desired outcomes. We need to coach our teachers with 1:1 mentoring on a regular basis throughout the year.

For teachers to alter their pedagogy, and to both share more of themselves and invite students to do the same, feels risky. This requires teachers to step out of their comfort zones and to be vulnerable.  For this kind of change to succeed, program participants need the understanding and support of colleagues and the school administration. Ayeka works with at least two teachers within a school to help cultivate a peer-to-peer support system. We find that keeping the school administration “in the loop,”so they understand and support this new approach to learning is also critical. Ideally, at some point, an administrator participates fully in one of our training cohorts.

Site visits are invaluable, when we offer direct feedback to teachers after observing their lessons and meet administrators in person.  Moreover, each school is a universe unto itself.  The schools are vastly different sizes and in different geographic regions of the country. They serve different denominational communities, have diverse cultures, and operate in different educational systems.  Some schools are thriving and some are struggling.  Some buildings are decrepit and some are state-of-the-art.  When teachers gather from across the country to attend our training retreats, they are “homogenized” to some extent, and we see only the differences in them as individuals. Yet all of these variable factors and more influence what happens in the classroom, and we can best support our teachers by knowing the ecosystems in which they operate.

There are inherent challenges in trying to effect transformative change in an institution from the outside. We do not hire teachers, design curriculum, run staff meetings, or define school culture. Some schools, in their well-intentioned hurry to improve instruction, introduce multiple professional development initiatives at the same time, which can overwhelm its teachers. We need to teach our pedagogy in the most effective manner possible, while staying mindful of the limitations of our reach and the many factors influencing teachers and their capacity.

Big Questions to Consider Moving Forward
Ayeka partners with schools, but we train educators. We see a surprisingly high rate of transience in the day school workplace.  For instance, in our first year working with six schools, two Heads of School transitioned, and several teachers went on leave or are leaving the school.  This has led us to question the unit of change we are seeking and effecting.  If it is the individual educator, should we “follow” them to their new place of employment? If it is the school, how do we address the inconsistency and lost ground when participants leave?

Is a short-term partnership effective, or must the relationship be ongoing in order to have long-term impact?  How do we balance depth with breadth, rigorously training select educators while exposing the entire staff to core elements of our pedagogy and the paradigm shifts we are inviting?  How can we do this right and still keep it affordable?

At Ayeka, we believe we are all works-in-progress and on a lifelong journey of learning and growth. The first year of the Soulful Education Professional Development program yielded important insights and questions. We know there are more to come as we work with schools to make Jewish learning more personally meaningful for students and teachers alike.

Michal Fox Smart is Director of Ayeka North America