Local Jewish educators pursue professional development | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Local Jewish educators pursue professional development  


The recent Education Task Force of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation asked the community about the state of Jewish education in the Milwaukee area last year and learned that a top funding priority is professional development for educators.

While more professional development could certainly be implemented, there is already a lot being done in area schools, according to Tziporah Altman-Shafer, Jewish education community planner and director of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Coalition for Jewish Learning.

This school year, the Coalition for Jewish Learning will offer a dozen professional development classes for educators, and the schools themselves are offering an abundance of professional development, Altman-Shafer said.

Many educators in the system have strong backgrounds in education or Judaism, but not necessarily both. “We really try to provide classes that will enhance the teaching in both areas,” Altman-Shafer said.

The theme this year is Jewish holidays with classes on secular educational topics intermixed.

Last year, 60 teachers from 16 schools took professional development courses through the Coalition for Jewish Learning, logging 700 hours, according to Altman-Shafer. Eight teachers from four schools earned $300 stipends for completing a set amount of training.

The Coalition for Jewish Learning also sponsors online continuing education courses, and a record number of Gan Ami Early Childhood teachers are taking advantage of that program this year, Altman-Shafer said.

Bader Hillel Academy

Professional development is always a focus at Bader Hillel Academy, according to Principal Devorah Shmotkin.

“Staff is the backbone of any school,” she said, so creating a school-wide culture of lifelong learning is a priority.

Lots of professional development is administered to the staff as a whole, but many times, curriculum-specific instruction is delivered to small groups of teachers. Much professional development in the last few years has been focused on social-emotional learning topics, the “bedrock of children’s learning,” according to Shmotkin.

Whenever individual teachers express an interest in learning more about a particular topic in education, Shmotkin will facilitate connecting that teacher with a forum to learn more, oftentimes webinars, as budgets allow.

Bader Hillel High School

Educators at Bader Hillel High School are utilizing BetterLessons professional development services to offer personalized training for teachers.

After conducting traditional one- to two-day teacher in-services for many years, educators found that those just weren’t working anymore.

Girls Division Principal Ilana Bassman, at left, talks with Blended Learning Director Rebbeca Berger at a recent Bader Hillel High School professional development session.

“Teachers find it very difficult to utilize and customize (the learning),” said Rabbi Yossi Bassman, administrator at Bader Hillel.

BetterLessons engages teachers in a design studio at the beginning of the year where they set key learning outcomes, but teachers then have the opportunity to meet with a coach virtually for 30 minutes every other week to go over progress toward those outcomes.

For the past two years, small groups of educators headed to New York for the design studio, but this year, Bader Hillel was able to bring BetterLessons staff to Wisconsin to meet with the entire staff.

“There is no professional development like them,” he said. “Their coaches are phenomenal, and we’ve seen tremendous value with them.”

Gan Ami Early Childhood

Ninety educators between Gan Ami Early Childhood’s two sites in Mequon and Whitefish Bay kick off the school year annually with two days of professional development at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center’s Rainbow Day Camp. Gan Ami is a JCC program.

This year’s retreat in August focused on two primary themes: nature and project-based learning. The teachers also spent a significant amount of time building relationships.

Stacy Synold Mitchell, director of early childhood education at Gan Ami, looks for all professional development to meet three criteria: immediate relevancy, inspiring content and accessibility.

A number of guest experts come to address teachers throughout the year. Gan Ami Early Childhood brought in Erin Winkler, an associate professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, in August and she will return again this March to address race and education.

Synold Mitchell tries to reach teachers in a number of different ways, and posting educational tips and tricks on social media has been a good way to connect with younger staff.

“Social media drives their learning,” she said.

Synold Mitchell is excited to keep experimenting and reaching teachers in new ways.

“I’m always looking for ways to do more,” she said. “I think it builds a culture where everyone is a learner.”

Jewish Beginnings

At Jewish Beginnings, there is an emphasis on learning from one’s neighbors.

Twice a year, teachers head into schools with similar philosophies, oftentimes other schools utilizing the Reggio Emilia approach, to observe educators and pick up techniques from them.

If finances were not a barrier, Devorkie Shmotkin, assistant director of Jewish Beginnings, would love to send the entire staff to Italy, the birthplace of Reggio Emilia, to learn from educators there.

Monthly, the school brings in guest speakers to impart knowledge about various educational topics.

When possible, the school works to place substitute teachers in the classrooms so that teachers of like age groups can meet together.

“They can get time to prepare or go in depth,” Shmotkin said.

All year, teachers have the support of a coach working within the school.

In addition, “we encourage our teachers to continue learning all the time taking classes,” Shmotkin said.

The school financially supports teachers as they pursue more advanced degrees, she said.

Milwaukee Jewish Day School

Aaron Lippman, in his first year as head of the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, is focusing on building community through professional development efforts.

The year started with several days of professional learning, and the team went over the school’s mission and core values.

Eighth-graders joined teachers for work with the core values. Each grade level is assigned a core value: Kindness, wonder, mindfulness, community, empathy, origins, holiness, purpose, repair the world and pioneer.

Educators also studied the business fable “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” The Milwaukee Jewish Day School staff also meets monthly.

Focuses recently have been the implementation of student-led conferences and school-wide blogging.

“The process is more important than the outcome,” Lippman said.

Lippman and several other school leaders serve as “learning partners” throughout the year, observing teachers multiple times, giving them feedback and helping them improve their craft.

MJDS has also worked with educational consultants, including them in a series of “ED Talks,” modeled after TED Talks

“The teachers at MJDS have truly embraced the idea of ‘learning out loud’ with their students,” wrote educational consultant Dale Truding in a school newsletter. “Each time you figure out something new, please consider sharing it with your children.”

Mequon Jewish Preschool

Mequon Jewish Preschool also works with an outside consultant to deliver professional development.

Dr. Naama Zoran, a developmental psychologist and educational systems consultant from Israel, travels to Milwaukee four to five times a year to visit Mequon Jewish Preschool, though she is in nearly constant contact with educators there.

“The professional development that we are doing focuses on the teacher,” she said. “It all starts and ends with the teacher’s attitude.”

Zoran works with the teachers to ensure they demonstrate pedagogical awareness in any given situation.

For example, Zoran recently observed a teacher ask her class about what gift might be appropriate for the class to give another child, absent that day, on his birthday.

Many students gave concrete ideas, specific toys. One child said they would need to figure out what the child likes before offering a suggestion. Another child suggested something that was shot down by two other boys.

The teacher did not scold the boys as one might expect. Instead, she opened up a dialogue.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked.

That item isn’t for boys, the boys said.

“What do you mean by that?” she pressed.

My sister has it, one of the boys said.

Then the teacher asked students to consider who decides which toys are for boys and which are for girls.

“In your point of view, it’s not for boys,” Zoran recalls her saying. “But in his point of view, it is for boys.”

The child whose idea had been shut down was empowered, and the entire class learned something about perspective, Zoran said.

Teachers are encouraged to observe their students and dissect discussion like this on a continuous basis.

“We have a culture in our school of researching and learning,” said Rivkie Spalter, director of the preschool. That culture has grown with Zoran’s guidance. “It’s a really big part of how the school runs.”

The preschool selects a Jewish value each year and builds upon it. This year’s theme is awareness, and Zoran is certainly helping teachers reach awareness in their own classrooms.

When teachers model observation and research practices, students are spurred to do the same, reflected in the young boy in the above example who wished to first learn what his classmate liked.

Yeshiva Elementary School

When Rabbi Dovid Kossowsky began working at Yeshiva Elementary School six years ago, he made plans to take the school to the next level, he said.

He established regular monthly meetings as an avenue for professional development among faculty. There, a number of topics are discussed with regularity, including curriculum, social-emotional skills and parent-teacher communication.

“That was a very touchy subject” at first, Kossowsky said.

He elaborated: Parents and teachers are both very hesitant to call one another.

“It is so essential,” he said. But “when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong.”

In addition to monthly meetings, faculty members participate in annual in-services.

They build on themes of those in-services in monthly meetings and in two yearly Skype interviews with the individual brought in to lead the in-service.

“We didn’t just learn something and then forget it,” Kossowsky said. “It’s important that teachers really are constantly growing.”

Participation in the Mandel Teacher Education Institute

Altman-Shafer, with Rabbi Marcey Rosenbaum, educator at Congregation Shalom’s religious school, and Jennifer Saber, education director of the School of Jewish Studies at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid, intend to share knowledge gleaned through the Mandel Teacher Education Institute with colleagues in the Milwaukee area.

The three are enrolled in a two-year program during which time they will attend six four-day seminars together in Chicago.

Their first was Nov. 5-8, and “it was fantastic,” Altman-Shafer said.

Altman-Shafer hopes other area educators will take advantage of all the institute has to offer in future years so that they can also be “teachers of teachers.”