Annual Educators Conference Held for After-School, Weekend Teachers
Schoolchildren thrive in an environment where not only their academic needs are met, but also their social, emotional and spiritual needs.
However, today’s children are burdened by stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic isolation and social media, which can affect their ability to thrive academically.
Helping after-school and weekend supplemental Jewish school teachers develop the tools to address those needs was the focus of the annual Jewish Educators Conference on Jan. 29 at Temple Shaari Emeth in Manalapan.
The program was sponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey and involved teachers from six congregations: Shaari Emeth, Temple B’nai Shalom, East Brunswick; Congregation B’nai Israel, Rumson; Monmouth Reform Temple, Tinton Falls; Temple Emanu-El, Edison and the Lev Academy of the Perrineville Jewish Center.
Federation Director of Community Impact Laura Safran said she also convenes a monthly meeting of education directors to discuss issues.
“We are coming out of one of the most difficult times for teachers and human beings in general,” said Evie Rotstein, senior education adviser of the New York School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who conducted the program.
The pandemic only added another layer to the isolation for teachers who, even though “they truly love their profession,” operate in their own classrooms without knowing what other educators are doing in theirs.
“The pandemic added another layer to that,” said Rotstein, noting humans are social creatures who connect to each other through stories.
In fact, she pointed out studies have shown that Gen Z, or those 10 to 25 years old, are the most anxious generation to date with technology, climate change, politics and other stressors fueling additional anxiety on top of the pandemic.
One teacher also later observed that when she was young she used to call a friend when stressed and talk to them over the phone or go out. Today’s young people have lost that personal interaction, more often choosing to communicate via text message.
Rotstein asked the teachers to go through a series of exercises—approaching someone they didn’t know and telling them about their best vacation, or asking those who prefer Passover over Sukkot to go to one side of the room and those who prefer the fall holiday to go to the other and tell another person about a favorite family tradition connected to that holiday.
“Evoking a family vacation produces a wonder and new feeling of joy,” noted Rotstein. “We share stories to connect to other people.”
She said Jews have long understood that human interaction is integral to learning by studying text with a havruta, or study partner, “one of the oldest pedagogies that exists.”
“In the Jewish tradition, we talk about knowing or listening with the heart,” added Rotstein. “They knew about social emotional learning 2,000 years ago.”
Teachers were asked to find a study partner and discuss two different texts, asking the other such questions as what resonated for them or asking about what the other meant about something and requesting that person provide an example.
“Truth be told, you are such important people in the lives of your students in passing down Jewish tradition from one generation to the next,” said Rotstein. “Students can’t focus unless they feel safe and supported. Learning is a relational and social process. … Learning is very connected to the environment we create.”
Teachers can help students already suffering academically from remote learning by helping then build trust through stories.
“A key outcome of Jewish education is to ultimately create Jewish leaders who are caring and empathetic,” said Rostein, adding that social and emotional learning is key to building leaders who both share those traits and are grounded in Jewish values.
Jennifer Klain, a teacher at Shaari Emeth, said she thought there was “always good value in learning how to better reach our students, and learning about this social emotional component was helpful.”
Shari Tosk, a teacher at Beth Ahm, praised the instructor who she called “very energetic.”
“I’ve been to a lot of these workshops, and this has been one of the better ones,” she said. “She packed a lot of different activities into it.”
There will be a virtual follow-up program in March.
DEBRA RUBIN IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.