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Education Corner

by Susan Wall
Director, Pardes Educators Alumni Support Project

Growing our Students Means Growing Ourselves

Over the years I have become even more convinced that teaching is one of the most demanding, difficult, important and potentially rewarding careers there is. The teacher is THE key to student learning. Schools that care about maximizing student learning and growth should also care about maximizing teacher learning and growth.

I recently finished reading Teachers as Learners, a collection of Dr. Sharon Feiman Nemser’s writings. This worthwhile read focuses on different models of teacher training including induction and support and raises important questions. Hopefully the following highlights will whet your appetite to explore some of the articles on your own.

Sharon cites the research that it takes about seven years for teachers to achieve some level of mastery and what she calls stabilization.  Teachers go through several stages before they reach this level.  

Successful preparatory programs provide teachers with the opportunity to form their initial beliefs about good teaching, acquire necessary content knowledge, learn about the needs of students at different ages and stages and develop a beginning repertoire – not to mention the added need for Judaic studies teachers (as role models) to figure out their own take on critical issues such as God, prayer and Israel. All of this is important, but no preparatory program is able to give teachers everything they need to know. Much of teaching needs to be learned on the ground. 

A first year teacher begins with a double load (twice what any other teacher has).  All teachers have to teach, but novices have to learn simultaneously HOW to teach. Schools, therefore, should give new teachers a reduced load, ideal conditions (the least challenging classes, fewer preps, a good physical set-up, etc.) and adequate mentoring support.

Sadly, induction takes place regardless of whether conditions are ideal. The cost of novice teachers receiving sub-par support has been well documented. Many leave the field, but those who remain too often lose their ideals and high expectations for student achievement.

While it is true that more schools are providing serious induction support, this support often only lasts for a maximum of two years. Yet novice teachers are far from finished by the end of year two. Only somewhere between years three and five, most  teachers have successfully transitioned to what it means to be a teacher and are feeling ready to  take next steps. 

Starting at year four or five, there are many areas to further explore. “Deepening,” “strengthening,” “extending,”  “refining” – these are all on the agenda of the novice teacher at this stage of development as they relate to subject matter content, curriculum and assessment.   Teachers are now able to focus on their students, trying to understand what it is that allows them to learn. 

Dr. Feinman Nemser provides a framework for us to understand the challenges of teacher growth and development. She says, “Over time, most teachers develop instructional routines, learn what to expect from students, and are settled into teaching patterns with confidence and a sense of having arrived…Obviously, learning continues for thoughtful teachers as long as they remain in teaching (p.132).”

Some of you are fortunate to be in schools that recognize the importance of teachers as reflective learners and put that high on the school’s agenda, providing personnel and resources for professional development. Thanks to the Jim Joseph Foundation, our alumni support project has also been able to provide both our novice and more veteran teachers with growth opportunities in the form of retreats and conferences, participating in new initiatives (such as our havruta or tefilah action research projects), the new leadership track at Summer Curriculum Workshop and reaching out to alumni to mentor and our latest Professional Learning Communities (for middle school and elementary school teachers).   

What else can you be doing? First you need to respond to the call of Ayeka – to think of where you are in terms of your own development.  What needs have you identified? What avenues can you take to move forward? If you are feeling stuck or would simply like some support, let us try to help. It has been gratifying that so many of you have either participated in our programs or turned to us for guidance at various stages in your teacher development. We hope you will continue to do so.

You initially came to Pardes because you were learners. Great teachers are life-long learners. May you be blessed to work in institutions with colleagues, mentors and students who will allow you to continue to learn and grow.