Ongoing teacher-support network replaces workshops

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There's something fundamentally wrong with the term "workshop," said Fred Nathan, coordinator of professional development for the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

For the most part, Nathan said, workshops "just don't work. The one-shot presentation for two hours doesn't cut it."

So with the exception of a one-day, 14-workshop conference, the BJE is banishing all the dinosaurs from its Laatid ("for the future") teacher-training program. It's eliminating seminars that don't give teachers a chance for feedback and discussion on how effective the techniques are in the classroom.

Instead, Sunday- and Hebrew-school teachers — most of whom hold degrees in education but lack extensive Jewish knowledge — will focus on their own learning while building a support network among themselves.

To that end, the BJE offers a number of new or pilot programs which are long-term and focus on specific disciplines and age groups.

"To be a good teacher," Nathan said, "you have to be a model student."

Most of the BJE classes meet four or six times during the course of a year. However, participants in a program called Chavurot meet continuously from fall to spring. Emphasizing both pedagogy and Judaism, it may become a future model for training teachers.

To encourage dialogue, the program is limited to 24 participants, each of whom must be recommended by his or her congregation's education director.

This year, Chavurot participants will divide themselves into groups of 12, depending on whether their chief area of interest is history or the Bible. All participants will study with scholars, learn research techniques, discuss educational issues, create lesson plans and visit other schools to observe each other in action. Then they will reflect as a team on their experiences.

Besides training better teachers, the program's objective "is for teachers to start depending on each other and bond into a network of educators who teach a specific subject," Nathan said.

This goal stems from nearly a year of research sponsored by the national Council for Initiatives in Jewish Education. Nathan and BJE executive director Robert Sherman were among 22 educators who convened several times in Cleveland to develop better teaching methods.

"You teach best from your own experiences," rather than from a static lesson plan, Nathan said.

The Chavurot program, by allowing teachers the chance to experience the joys and frustrations of digesting new information, affords them the chance to teach from those experiences.

Workshops aren't as effective as ongoing projects like Chavurot, because in a short-term format "the teachers can't absorb, digest, use it, come back, raise concerns, share experiences and go back again," Nathan added.

CIJE staff and participants also agreed that teachers need training that is richer in content and focused on specific needs.

In response, the BJE offers other pilot programs: sessions for new teachers, six sessions with A Traveling Jewish Theatre and meetings for those who teach teenagers.

The theater classes, aided by a grant from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund, strives to engage youngsters in Torah and Midrash through drama.

Teen-teacher training, also funded by the endowment fund, tackles the specific challenges of keeping kids active after their confirmation trips to Israel.

In addition, the BJE hosts an online Jewish educators' discussion in hopes of creating a larger support network. The e-mail address is: [email protected]

Last year, 320 Bay Area-based Jewish educators participated in teacher-training programs. Nathan is optimistic that new programs will attract even greater numbers this year.

"Despite [the fact] that most of our teachers teach only two to six hours a week, their enthusiasm and commitment is inspiring. They are self-taught; they know a lot; they are inquisitive. We're just trying to make it easier for them," Nathan said.

"We're trying out a new motto — a good educator is a lifelong learner."