Guest Blog

Supporting Teachers to Become Soulful Educators

– by Jeff Amshalem  

August 22nd, 2018

The Jim Joseph Foundation is pleased to share a series of reflections from beneficiaries of some of its newly-supported programs in leadership development and educator training. Rabbi Jeff Amshalem reflects on his experience working with educators as part of Ayeka’s Soulful Education program.

What will you be trying to do teshuvah for this year? Raise your hand if it is the same as last year. Raise the other hand if it was the same as the year before that. Raise the other hand if…

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got all my hands up. But was there anything you have succeeded in changing? Based on my own experience and my time as a teacher, I would guess that when real change happened, some combination of the following things was present for you: an emotional investment in changing, a deep and sustained process of reflection, and/or a personal model of the way you wanted to be.

Ayeka Soulful Education tries to provide these things for educators and the students they serve, so that education becomes not only about information but transformation. Most educators already share this goal; sometimes, however, our educational environments can do more to support this work as well. “Covering material,” for example, can take precedent over transformation. Reminiscent of Ramban’s famous claim that one can be “a scoundrel within the limits of the law,” a student can be a star without ever actually becoming one bit more of a mensch. Worse, they may not even realize that Jewish learning was supposed to be so much more. Is such a student really a success? Were his or her teachers?

At Ayeka, we like to think of our methodology as a paradigm shift. To achieve that shift, we began by offering intensive workshops for schools to help teachers create a classroom culture and facilitate lessons that would use the content being taught to inspire personal reflection and growth. We were moderately successful – teachers reported increased student engagement, more supportive student culture, and satisfaction in everyone knowing that the purpose of learning was to change and grow – but we did not achieve the paradigm shift we were looking for. Ayeka still felt like a technique, like something teachers did, not an approach, not something they were becoming.

We realized that we had skipped the most important step – the teacher’s own learning for growth. Like most (if not all) day school educators, our teachers were pressed for time, spent much of their development and teaching time alone, and approached the material by immediately asking what the students would take from it (which was usually answered in the form of content and skills). So now, when we partner with schools, whether in 18 month or 3 year programs, we devote our first three-day retreat and the entire first semester to helping the teachers reconnect to Torah themselves, as learners, as Jews with souls of their own that need nourishing, and not teachers. We build an intimate cohort of teachers and administrators from all the partner schools and create an environment built on honesty, openness, and room for failure. We stress seeing ourselves as works in progress, with Torah as a guide, and each other as fellows on the way. We give the gift of time and a supportive space that teachers generally lack, to reinvest in the kind of learning that attracted so many teachers to Jewish education in the first place. We learn together, asking just one simple question – what does this have to say to you, right now? It is staggering to hear teachers say, time and again, “Wow, I never get to learn like this anymore” (or even “I’ve never learned like this before”).

It’s only in the second semester that we begin bringing this methodology into the classroom, and only gradually, because the teachers have to be authentic models themselves of this kind of soulful learning if they hope to inspire their students to learn in the same way. The focus is still on the teacher, though, as we try to cultivate the necessary dispositions for this kind of teaching, such as humility, being a generous listener, and the willingness to be vulnerable. We also work on creating classroom environments that mirror the learning culture we create in our cohorts, so that students can feel supported, heard, and accepted. Only then do we move on to teaching techniques that will help move the learning from the brain down into the heart and out into students’ lives.

This is the place for me to stress that that learning is a key part of the Ayeka approach. Ayeka is not an add-on to content learning, and it certainly does not come to replace the learning of content and skills; as an approach to Jewish education that comes from lives spent in the beit midrash and that is based first and foremost on the teachings of Rav Kook, it would be heresy to suggest such a thing. On the contrary, we find that the more integrated the affective and content learning are, the more the learning spurs growth.

Perhaps I can best illustrate this with an example. Let’s return to teshuvah. How do you teach it? That’s easy, right? You could teach Rambam’s Four Steps. You could teach the story of King David, or Moses’ plea after Het haEigel. So far, though, we’re only talking about content – no matter how well the students learn this material, nothing is likely to change. So let’s make it relevant. We could ask them to identify something in their life they need to do teshuvah for; we could look for parallels between ourselves and King David, or ask what the big sin of today is. All good ideas, except that…still, nothing is likely to change, because it hasn’t moved out of their heads and into their hearts. And here’s where Ayeka comes in. We believe that if a young person is going to open up his or her heart to allow the Torah learning in, they have to feel emotionally safe and supported by their teacher and their classmates, they have to be given the time and the tools to reflect personally on what the learning has to say to them, and they need a model of what being a work in progress looks like. Providing these things is the real hard work of an Ayeka educator, and its what we educate towards in our own training. It takes a long time; it takes commitment; it takes guts. But we’ve seen, time and again, that when mentors, administrators, and teachers work together to provide them, the results are truly transformative.

Rabbi Jeff Amshalem is a Senior Ayeka Educator