From the Professional Team

Strength in Numbers: Creating Cohorts of Educators to Learn and Grow Together

– by Dawne Bear Novicoff and Stacie Cherner

December 7th, 2017

There’s nothing new about the Jim Joseph Foundation investing in Jewish educators and in educator professional development (PD) specifically. In fact, some of the Foundation’s earliest and largest investments were in PD; investments which continue to be an integral part of the Foundation’s strategy, along with the rigorous evaluation of them. About a handful of Foundation-supported professional development programs are operated by our valued partners at any given time.

Yet, there is a certain “newness” to the latest set of investments following the Foundation’s Request for Proposals (RFP) for programs in Jewish Educator PD that differentiates it from previous Foundation grants in this space. First and foremost, the ten new initiatives all represent cohorts of educators, and the directors of these programs all comprise a Community of Practice (Cop) to learn together. This set of investments is a new structure in which the Foundation is operating, a change we made deliberately and after much thought.

Why This, Why Now

It is important to note that this investment approach is not replacing the Foundation’s other grantmaking in which an individual organization receives support. Yet this new approach begs the simple question, “why?” After more than a decade of investments in educator professional development totaling more than $70 million, why intentionally create cohorts simultaneously among numerous organizations? Learnings from previous investments—both those related to educator professional development and others—show clearly that a cohort-based PD program targeting in-service professionals offers significant benefits for Jewish educators, namely:

  • The cohort experience in which people learn together, grow together, network, and support each other, is deeply impactful and effective. There are numerous examples that point to this; as just one, the recent evaluation of the Specialty Camps Incubator shows the added value of a cohort structure: Camp directors and assistant directors gained knowledge and insight by hearing one another discuss their challenges and solutions. These camp leaders also consider their cohort to include the Incubator staff and mentors, reflecting a strong sense of belonging to a larger community of Jewish camp professionals.
  • Professional development opportunities offered while educators are in-service (as opposed to before entering the workforce) increase educator morale, educator skills, and the likelihood that educators will advance and remain in the field.
  • By design, educator professional development programs tend to be relatively small in number. These are intense, immersive programs, tailor-made for participants with one-on-one mentoring, travel, and opportunities to return to their educational settings to apply learnings and to reflect (employers and supervisors are an important piece of this too). This also means that from a sheer numbers standpoint, in order to truly impact the field, the Foundation needs to fund a set of programs to reach a tipping point that engages a significant number of educators.

Of course this latter point also means that educator PD done in this manner is expensive, plain and simple. Yet the Foundation has learned that the high cost per person is worth the investment in high-quality programs. So we have—and continue to—bet on individuals who are committed to their practice and want to advance and improve in their work. The training they receive emanates out from their practice, to their workplace, and to the entire field of Jewish education.

A PD Cohort of Diverse Educators for Diverse Learners

While all of these learnings informed how the Foundation designed the RFP, there was no way of ensuring the quantity and high quality of proposals received. And indeed, the Foundation was fortunate to receive both a high number and high quality of proposals from a range of organizations. As a result, the organizations represent a diversity of missions, types of programs, and types of educators who will benefit. Thus, the ultimate infusion into the field of 500 professionally developed educators will come from different types of PD interventions. And from what we know, this makes perfect sense. Learners in one setting—whether camp, school, cultural settings, and others—will engage with educators who received training that may look quite different compared to a learner and educator in a second setting.

Again, this set of investments, in addition to creating cohorts of educators, also creates a CoP among the directors of these PD programs. While the Foundation has seen the benefit of interventions premised on close collaboration, this also is a new approach for us in educator PD—about which we are excited and eager to learn. The CoP will include in-person and online convenings, smaller working groups, networking opportunities, and an overall structure for problem solving and support.

Laying the Groundwork for More Learnings and Outcomes

Over the next four years, as these programs and the Foundation’s support structures for them are implemented, an external evaluation will offer important learnings about the results of the cohort as a whole (as opposed to just each program), similar to the evaluation of the Specialty Camps Incubator.

The Foundation knows the importance of—and has deep respect for—the educator. Numerous studies and evaluations in both the Jewish and the secular education arenas show that the learners’ experience, and the impact of the learning, is significantly dependent on the talent of the educator. And educators are better when they are supported, networked, and trained in ongoing ways. On a large scale, we want to help develop talented, dynamic, and committed educators, with a deep passion for Jewish life and learning who will ultimately each reach a wide circle of students. This latest big bet is part of that endeavor.

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