Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"What are you doing for the summer?"

"What are you doing for the summer?"

I get that question almost daily this time of year.  Well-meaning and well-intentioned friends and neighbors, presumably expecting that I will be taking a well-deserved couple of months in some tropical paradise, inevitably inquire about which utopian getaway I will be frequenting from the moment that my students leave the school building until the moment they return at the end of vacation.

Of course, my answer is always something along the lines of:

"Same thing I do the rest of the year - going to work."

A response which is often greeted with:

"Over the summer?!  You work?!"

Now, I don't think that anyone means to be rude or demeaning.  But, in all honesty, it is somewhat baffling to me that people believe that teachers or administrators simply disappear for the summer, giving nary a thought to their career for two months, then somehow return days before school begins, put posters up in their classrooms, check their rosters, and are magically all ready to go. Such a mindset seems of a piece of the thinking that "Those who can't - teach", that teaching is somehow the domain of those who lack "real-world" skills and is populated mainly by people looking for good vacations and tuition breaks (yes, we have those as well, but they are not the reason that most people enter the field).

For the benefit of those who are surprised at my annual response, a quick sampling of the many and varied professional activities that take up an educator's summer in this day and age:

  • Preparing classes.  This is number one on the list for virtually everyone.  Well-constructed lessons, the type that you want your child to receive, are exactly that - constructed.  And construction takes time, time that does not really exist during the school year.  Summer allows a teacher the time to reflect on what he or she has done, what needs tweaking, what needs reinventing, and what needs to be scrapped.  Thinking about ways to differentiate, enrich, and remediate classes so as to reach all learning, and creating ample materials for all situations, all takes time.
  • Innovating. As education moves more and more into a digital existence, teachers have to take what they have been doing and re-imagine them through the prism of technology.  Taking time to learn several new iPad apps or online sites and then figuring how to integrate them into the classroom is a task that requires the time to experiment, evaluate, revise, and experiment again.
  • Professional Development.  Don't you hate it when your kids have the day off because the teachers have "Professional Development days"?  In other jobs, that is called going to conferences, and it is common and expected in most fields.  Thankfully, many such conferences in education, from one-day seminars to week-long confabs (such as the just concluded PBL World and ISTE 2013) take place over the summer, allowing for maximum participation with minimum classroom disruption.
  • Nuts and bolts.  When your child returns to school in late summer, chances are he will have a schedule fully laid out for him.  You will probably also receive all sorts of communication from the school over the summer about a wide range of small and not-so-small details that need attention.  A full slate of activities, events, and programs will likely unfold as the year goes on.  One guess when all of that gets planned.
There is no question that the summer is more relaxing for teachers.  There are no classes, we set our own schedules (more or less), and the stress level is way down.  To gain some perspective, think about students as clients and compare teachers to lawyers.  A lawyer prepares and researches countless hours when working on a case, but only spends part of that time working directly with the clients.  A teacher needs to do the same thing, but also needs to spend most hours during the day working directly with her clients.  So when does the research time come?  Right now, in one long stretch.  We do not have the luxury of meeting with our clients only once a week and spending the rest of the week preparing for those meetings.  

Every industry has its own calendrical cadences, and ours calls for ten frenetic months, followed by a two month period where we can collect ourselves, reflect, and plan for the future.  Is summer relatively restful for educators?  No question about it.  Are we on vacation for all of that time?  Not at all.  It's time for people to stop being surprised about that.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Is Yeshiva Education Failing - from the pages of Lookjed

The other day, the Lookjed (Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora) educators list had the following anonymous post:

I went to a class reunion a few years ago. My 8th grade class reunion. Of the 30 or so in the grade from my Orthodox day school, about 20 showed up. I was one of 2 males wearing a kippahOne of 3 who had any concern over kashrus at the event.Some, it seemed, were sending their kids to some flavor of day school. A bunch weren't. We had graduated 25 years earlier supposedly as full-fledged and committed members of klal yisroel and I felt out of place saying that I was still actively involved in the Orthodox Jewish community.

I also am friends with a number of friends (elementary and yeshiva high school) via facebook. To complain about posts onshabbos, posts about treif restaurants they go to or about their travel to exotic (and decidedly lacking in Judaism) places for work or play would only scratch the surface. What I have surmised (based on the number of intermarriages and lack of any affiliation with Judaism) is that of the 30 or so from 8th grade and the 100 or so from yeshiva HS, I am in the minority. Yes, some have maintained and strengthened their connection to their religion, but a huge number have moved away. Some went to Israel for a year to various programs, some didn't. Even some who live there now do so on secular terms.

I go into school every day and daven with a large number of yeshiva high school students. I can already see a lack of affiliation. They simply don't care. Davening is an inconvenience, tefillin are optional, tzniyut rules are ignored, learning is devalued. This is all despite incredible faculty, a clear mission and a variety of attempts to help students explore their bond with their religion. I look around in the school minyan and see barely a minyan of students davening. I can see that so many of these ostensibly Orthodox Jewish High School students will take the kippah off when the bell rings (both literally at the end of the day, and metaphorically, upon graduation). At their 5, 10 and 25 year reunions I predict that most, if they show up, will be leading wonderfully productive lives with little or no connection to Judaism unless they find it later in life on their own.

But every time I think about how much we are failing our students, how many we are losing, I stop and think about my own graduating classes. Maybe yeshiva education has been failing for 25 years. Maybe it can't succeed. Is it possible that we are fighting a losing fight just to reach the 10% of students who have any interest in being reached and the 5% who can be brought in to the fold against their will? Are there any long term and consistently updated studies on religiosity and yeshiva education which can reassure me that our failure today isn't unique nor does it spell the demise of Orthodoxy any more than a similar failure did 25 years ago. Are there studies that show that we are doing a worse job than in years past?

Optimist that I am about Jewish education, despite all of the challenges that we face on a daily basis, I felt that a response was needed, on two levels.  First, this post is purely anecdotal and such "evidence", while a nice way to start a discussion, is no way to make policy or decisions.  Second, I felt that the author was drawing one set of conclusions when there were others to be drawn.  Hence, my response:

I am not sure what type of feathers "Throw Away" was hoping to ruffle with his post, but mine have been ruffled insofar as I see the post as the typical anecdotal and emotional lament that usually leads into the "Yeshiva Day School education is broken" trope, which often moves into the call for some sort of nebulous radical reform of the schools.

Leaving aside the anecdotal and emotional nature of the post, by remaining anonymous and, more importantly, by not naming the school, the writer makes it impossible to know the nature and makeup of his class.  Twenty five years ago, many Modern Orthodox schools had several if not many students who came from nonreligious homes, who continued on to public high schools, and probably on to lives where religion played a minor role, if that much.  Why the parents of such students chose an Orthodox school for ten years is difficult to say, but I suppose that that choice certainly increased the chances that their child would have some Jewish connection in life.  Sometimes that worked, and I suppose sometimes it did not.  Is it fair or logical to condemn a school because it failed to make a nonreligious student religious despite his or her growing up in a nonreligious home?  Hardly.

The anonymous writer also laments that he sees the beginnings of lack of religion among his high school students.  Of course, the problems of lack of religious inspiration, failure to observe standards of tzniut, and other such challenges are present in probably all Modern Orthodox Middle and High Schools, and have been for years.  Are they warning signs of abandoning religion?  In some cases, perhaps, but in many other cases they are symptomatic of students who are struggling to find their place as Modern Orthodox Jews in a secular and confusing world, not to mention a little bit of teenage rebellion.  I also have many students who present these challenges - and most that I know of go on to remain Orthodox Jews.  The fact that they forget to put their kippa back on after walking ten feet after going on a roller coaster is disturbing to me, and I am not thrilled about physical contact between the sexes, and I wish that they cared more about davening.  However, our job as educators is to understand each student and see what are red flags and what are genuine struggles and to address each student appropriately.

Furthermore, I fail to see how one can conclude that Jewish Day Schools have been reaching only a small percent of their constituencies.  How then do we explain the growth of Modern Orthodox communities over the past 20 years?  I have lived most of my life in Teaneck, NJ and have watched it double and then double again in that time, and surrounding communities and communities around the country have grown as well.  Where are all of those people coming from if not from Jewish Day Schools?  Yes, some of the people are ba'alei teshuva, but solid majorities have come up "through the system".  While I agree that we have lost people and continue to do so, I would question whether the losses are as dramatic as Anonymous would imply or if those losses can be laid entirely or even primarily at the feet of the schools and the educators who toil in them.

Being an educator is a tricky business.  What inspires one student can turn off another student, or perhaps can turn off the same student on a different day.  We are called upon to constantly be sensitive to the characters and needs of our students and to do all that we can to ensure that they both learn something concrete and have positive Jewish experiences along the way.  To my mind, one of the most positive changes in the field in the past few decades has been the push the professionalize it.  More teachers in more schools are more connected with the world of general education and with their colleagues in other schools than ever before.  That has led to a growing culture of sharing, trying new ideas and approaches, and learning from experts about how complex our students are.  We may never succeed in reaching every child, but I am optimistic that we are taking steps in the right direction.

What do you think?  Are we failing?  Are we succeeding?  How would we measure one or the other?