A Call for Investment in Teaching and Teachers

When my son and I walked into his preschool classroom a few weeks ago, his teacher said immediately, “Good morning, Milo! Why are you walking funny?” My son had indeed been walking funny, or not normally, or not typically—with his toes pointed out, as he often does. He walks like that because he’s getting energy out, or he’s being silly, or he’s being different, or he’s being defiant, or he’s doing all of those things. He’s 3, and that’s what 3-year olds do. (Heck, it’s what some grown-ups do.) And if his teacher had said, “You’re walking funny!” Or, “That’s a funny walk!” she might have succeeded in observing what he was doing in a nonjudgmental way. Instead, she said, “WHY are you walking FUNNY?” in a puzzled, quizzical, challenging tone, a tone that called him out and emphasized that he was funny-odd. “WHAT ON EARTH are you doing?” she was asking.


I noticed it. And my son did, too. And suddenly something he was doing that was innocent and sweet and silly became something that was weird. And in one motion he turned toward me with his arm out, as though he were about to hit me—because suddenly he had to do something with his energy and, now, his anger. A lovely moment of starting the day together turned into shame for a small person.


This moment was a small thing, maybe, in the life of a preschooler. But it does show the importance of one sentence, of a few words, of the inflection in a teacher’s voice. It shows a teacher’s power. It shows that we shape human beings through every word we use, every action we take. It shows that we constantly have choice, and choices comprise our teaching.


(For those curious, I got us out of this moment by grabbing his hand, leaning down to his level, and whispering to him, You did nothing wrong. And by saying aloud, “In our family, we walk funny, that’s why!” And later that night, we did walk funny, all the way home. Validation and support fight shame. But this isn’t a blog post about toddlers, so I’ll save that conversation, of these resources, for another time.)


In the two-plus decades of my career, I have been asked not infrequently what the next “big thing” could be—the next Birthright, or PJ Library. The next game-changer. In this question, people are looking for a fundable initiative, something to describe on a piece of paper or bring to a grants committee or a new donor. And what I’ve realized is that we (Jewish communal leaders, institutional supporters) overemphasize these silver bullets, always looking for a new experience. In doing so, we rarely or never pay attention to what actually happens inside of a learning setting. The silver bullet isn’t a new initiative. It’s what our initiative leaders—our educators—actually say during the programs that comprise the initiatives themselves. It’s what happens inside that counts. Teaching facilitates learning, and learning is our goal. What a teacher does, her capabilities—that’s the silver bullet. That’s everything.


There is, to put it mildly, a significant academic discourse on teaching and learning. And this discourse has not been entirely ignored in Jewish life. That is, it’s sometimes been applied, used to generate professional development opportunities. Federation’s work bringing the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI) to the Houston community (more on this below) is rooted in an academic understanding of how teachers strengthen their teaching within the safety of teacher community. In Toronto, through the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation, educators have had the opportunity to advance their skills in the experiential realm through a partnership with the Jewish Theological Seminary. These initiatives are born of the idea that good professional development is:


  • Sustained
  • Integrated into educators’ daily work
  • Targeted toward the specific subject matter that the educator teaches
  • Open: oriented around questions and challenges, not closed around specific solutions
  • Of the view that teaching is intellectual and adaptive, not methodical and technical


And, these initiatives are born of the understanding that we need to develop educators as leaders, as Jews, as human beings and as teachers—influencers on and agents of development for others—if we want them to be instruments of change for their students and in Jewish community.


There are images, then, of what’s possible. But more frequently, professional development—an investment in educators—is lowest on our Jewish life priority list. We treat it as a box to be checked, throwing a single day of learning toward educators as our lone venture in this area, then focusing on programs and not people.


Through grants, technical assistance, or the provision of service directly, we suggest that professional development—game-changing, best practice professional development, the development of our people—be an even more strategic priority for Federations. Only if we invest in the shaping of our teachers can we truly take responsibility for who our students become.


Where do we start? First, we learn from academia how teaching becomes great:


  1. Teaching for “understanding” is different from teaching so that someone learns a fact. Understanding what prayer is, why it exists (why it developed), how prayer evolved over Jewish time (and that liturgy and Bible are interwoven), why we pray, why and when any given student might pray—students’ understandings in these areas are all different and deeper than merely knowing the language of a prayer, and these understandings are imperative to building a Jew who is engaged with Judaism and with community. Read more.
  2. Similarly, teaching “problems” is different from teaching straightforward facts. Teaching “problems” and teaching with problems involves engaging students in real-world application of the subject matter we are teaching. As a result, it helps students learn to use the material that they are studying, and then to think like a mathematician, or a writer, or—in our case—a Jew. (This is contrasted, say, with teaching where students read something in a workbook and then answer questions about it.) Read more.
  3. Teachers need deep understanding of their content, their subject matter, so that students themselves can have deep and “flexible” understanding, using what they learn in their lives and applying it to new situations outside of those they discussed in school. Teachers cannot be just one page ahead of their students, learning with their students as they go.
  4. Teachers need to know their subject matter (content), but they also need to know how to teach what they’re teaching (pedagogical content knowledge), that the way that they approach teaching changes depending on what they are teaching, how their discipline is organized (“syntactic” knowledge), who their learners are and how their learners might best connect to the subject matter, and how to transform the subject matter into teachable material. Some argue that there are 150 ways of knowing for teachers, and this explores similar ideas (particularly pages 9-10).
  5. Teaching is lonely. We go into classrooms and close the doors, talking to other adults only when we encounter them in the break room, and then usually talking about the TV show we watched last night. But teaching is complex, requires great emotional risk, and usually demands unpacking of at least one choice-point among 100 similar choices in any given hour. That’s how teachers get better at their craft. Read more and this too.


This means we need teachers who know a lot about what they’re teaching, who know a lot about how to teach what they’re teaching, who know how to use what they’re teaching in everyday life, and who continually reflect on their work in order to get better at it.


We reboot our professional development spending, offering initiatives that invest in educators in all settings, not only through an occasional evening seminar or a one-shot day of learning but continually, deeply, and toward their sustained, reflection, growth, and development.


We might:


  • Provide pedagogical training by building a local cohort of educators engaged with a national faculty. Partner with a university to bring some of their best teacher development (in experiential education, or teaching texts, or building student community) to your educators (or bring your educators to them).
  • Do the same with subject-matter faculty so as to deepen your local educators’ subject matter understanding—give your educators a meaningful experience with prayer, Israel, history and memory, or texts. Expand their Jewish knowledge and their Jewish sense of self through Jewish experiences. Bring faculty to your community for sustained learning, or bring your educators to the faculty.
  • Create opportunities for local teacher growth through collaboration. Provide grants so that schools can reorganize their programs and add substitute teachers, taking teachers out of their settings (classrooms or other) for a few hours a month to allow them to observe the teaching of others. Create a daylong seminar for all educators, introducing ideas of teacher observation and conversation. Build a cohort of educators across settings who participate in observing each other’s teaching. Participate in MTEI, or bring MTEI to your community.
  • Award new teachers the opportunity to work with senior teachers. Partner with The Jewish New Teacher Project to build a local mentor program (note: JNTP is targeted toward day schools). Provide the mentors training in mentoring new teachers (new teacher induction).
  • Design experiments in teaching. Bring training in teacher-research to your community and launch a series of inquiries, no matter how seemingly small, in settings throughout your community. Come together to talk about them.
  • To launch a culture of change and investigation, bring master lecturers about teaching and learning to your community.
  • Not offering direct service? Issue a request for proposals to meet any of these goals (such as “refine educator practice through community-building and reflection” or “help educators develop their subject matter knowledge”) or work closely with one partner to help them develop a new initiative.
  • And as you engage in any of these projects, do so with all of your educators across settings – classroom, experiential – to reclaim the word “teacher” for good, to refer to the complexity and richness of teaching and learning.


At JFNA, we also have a hand in this—we have a responsibility to bring to our community the best new ideas in research on teaching and teachers and to explore the ensuing questions: What does it mean to teach someone to not just know about Judaism but be Jewish? What understandings do we hope they develop? What are the “problems” we want students to explore in Jewish education? It is our job to convene conversations to advance and deepen our thinking and, therefore, our practice.


When I taught religious school, I did it out of charisma, love for Judaism, a good many years collecting Jewish wisdom from different experiential settings, and a little bit of guidance. I knew almost nothing formal about teaching. I ran after every class to my principal to debrief. I was starved to talk about what I did—the chances I took, how kids responded, the energy in the classroom.


Teaching is not something generic but a unique act that happens in a particular setting, with particular learners and precise content, along with a particular educator and that educator’s life experience and opinions and ideas. It begs analysis. It is the shaping of human beings. There is nothing harder. It can’t happen by accident: the wrong word shared, a student comment ignored. Good teaching isn’t born. It’s made, through careful reflection. We seem too often to invest in professional development with the most superficial of interventions. It’s time to take educators as seriously as their potential demands. Any Federation can lead this work. We need to make the choice to do so.




We offer here an initial list of partners and initiatives, all of which offer intellectual resources that can be packaged in a virtual or in-person experience for a cohort of educators. We hope you will be creative in approaching them to help you meet your community’s needs and goals. Overwhelmed? Contact us! We will help you determine where to start.


  • The Mandel Teacher Educator Institute trains educators—in a national cohort or in local cohorts—to lead communities of teachers reflecting together on their work and sharpening their practice.
  • Through the Jewish New Teacher Project, day school teachers receive mentors who help them with their early teaching, supporting them to stay in the field.
  • Hebrew College (Boston) offers a series of online learning opportunities, some targeted to adult learners and others to educators, an MA in Jewish education, and certificates in early childhood education, special education, interfaith family engagement, and other areas.
  • In addition to its degree programs, through NEXT, Gratz College provides online learning opportunities designed for educators. Gratz partners with a host of Federations/ Central Agencies to provide online learning opportunities, any of which can serve as resources as you design your initiative.
  • The William Davidson Graduate School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary hosts a collection of professional development opportunities, including leadership institutes for day school headmasters/ leaders, early childhood educators, and experiential educators. Its faculty and MA/ PhD programs mean that it has numerous resources that are valuable in supporting educators’ growth.
  • Brandeis University’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education leads a variety of applied research projects meant to explore teaching and learning across Jewish educational settings. Brandeis also offers DeLeT (Day School Leadership through Teaching), an applied program that prepares day school teachers and offers a master’s degree in teaching. Partnering with the university’s Near Eastern and Judaic Studies program and its Education program, Brandeis also offers a host of complementary resources to sharpen educators’ practice.
  • The Rhea Hirsch School of Education at Hebrew Union College offers a master’s degree in education, a focus in experiential education, and a variety of other intellectual resources. HUC (in Los Angeles) is also a home for DeLeT and, in the past, has offered an executive master’s program in education.
  • M2, the Institute for Experiential Education, offers an intensive experience in leadership development for experiential educators. A travel/ cohort-based program, through M2, educators and those working in education administration sharpen their understanding of education and their use of self as educators.
  • The Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem offers several programs for educators, namely degree and certificate programs for day school and experiential educators, as well as professional enrichment opportunities for those in the field.
  • The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America facilitates a number of cohort-based programs, such as for Hillel educators, (pulpit) rabbis, and in local communities, focusing on unpacking the complexity of big ideas in Jewish life including peoplehood, community, and identity.
  • The Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University offers a range of intellectual resources in Jewish education, across a host of issues, and awards degrees in several fields and facilitates some continuing education programs.
  • The Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago offers a number of certificate and degree programs in different areas of Jewish communal leadership as well as continuing education programs for communal professionals.
  • At Brandeis University, the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies facilitates a number of programs and is available for local, communal workshops, all directed at educators and communal leaders in varied settings.
  • Emory University’s Institute for the Study of Modern Israel focuses on educators, aiming to strengthen their subject-matter knowledge related to Israel and the Middle East.
  • The iCenter is an independent organization aiming to strengthen the understanding of Israel and the Middle East of educators in any setting.

Beth Cousens, PhD is the associate vice president, Jewish education & engagement at The Jewish Federations of North America.