20 Uncomfortable Facts about Jewish Education
6. The Very Religious Schools Devalue General Studies
One of the schools I taught at during my Jewish Education adventure was an all-boy, extremely religious school in Baltimore. I taught English to the entire 11th grade. My classes were in the early evening, right before dinner. After dinner, they still had plenty more study ahead of them. As you could imagine, by the time they saw me, they were already pretty burnt out, and standing as the gateway between them and dinner is not exactly a recipe for success.
It wasn’t long before I realized bad timing was hardly my only enemy to success. It rapidly became apparent to me that my subject was wildly under-valued by the school administration. Students could not read non-school-approved novels in their dorm rooms (and there was no actual process of approving further books). They were forbidden from visiting the public library, lest their eyes gaze upon the wicked internet. Students were discouraged from attending college. I was once requested to black out words in my vocabulary book that the school deemed “inappropriate”.
After I left, my successor quit on his first day. Why? He had decorated his classroom in the hopes of making it truly feel like a classroom. The religious studies teacher who taught before him in that same room ripped everything down before the first English class even happened!
I can go on. Easily.
The school had legal obligations toward general studies. And had to make some sort of positive impression on the parents. But the message to the students was clear: This stuff absolutely does not matter. The school created the perfect environment for students to treat their general studies subjects with complete indifference (at best), exactly as was their intention.
Sometimes these schools put on a good show for the parents. But it’s just a show. No one is likely to ever hear them say it, but actions speak louder than words. And these schools’ administrators are shouting from the rooftops how they feel about general studies.
7. The Worst People in Jewish Education Rise To The Top
I have had some unbelievable principals throughout my years in Jewish Education. Some were and remain my greatest professional influences. But this was hardly the norm.
It is undeniable that the front line of a school is its teachers. If the administration were to leave for a week, things would likely run pretty smoothly, maybe a couple of hiccups here or there. No teachers for a week?
The school falls apart.
Therefore, what should be the primary role of the administration? Obviously, to support their teaching staff. Administrators should be very knowledgable and capable educators themselves, able to offer valuable advice and assistance to their staff. They should know that the quality of their school is directly proportionate to the quality of the teachers, and thus see it as their sole mission to provide them with everything they need to succeed.
Some are like this.
Most are not.
What are they actually like?
Most administrators I’ve met along my Jewish Education path are uninspiring, self-aggrandizing climbers. They’re in it for themselves. They will gain as much personal wealth and glory as they can from their institution, and when they’re satisfied, they’ll hop on to something bigger and better.
The trickle-down effect inevitably means a worse school. You have teachers who feel they have no proper role model and no one there to help them when needed. I’ve already mentioned the principal I had with no sympathy for those who couldn’t find subs. I’ve had principals who’ve denied requests for $10 items! Others who’ve thrown me under the bus to parents or their superiors. And ones whose exclusive goal was to create an effect as if the entire institution revolves around them and their charisma.
The principal gets their glory… until they leave. The teachers are un-empowered and frustrated… until they leave. And the students are always the ones who lose out.
8. In Jewish Education, Suggestions Aren’t Suggestions
Another trait of lousy supervisors is how they relate to suggestions. In my most recent Jewish Education role, I had a boss who was constantly giving me suggestions for how to teach my class. Sometimes I took them, sometimes I attempted to discuss them further.
Discussion was not taken well.
I quickly learned that suggestions were just passive-aggressive orders. And that not taking these suggestions would be faulted heavily.
You might think that it’s a silly complaint. In all jobs, when the boss wants something, you do it. And for sure that’s true. However, there’s something deeper at play here. First of all, education is by no means an exact science. And there are environments teachers do better in than others. When a teacher disagrees with how to run their own classroom, it’s often because they know something the principal does not. To force them to go against their instinct will likely damage the instruction, and will certainly damage the mentality of the teacher.
Teachers thrive in environments in which they’re given creative freedom. To block that freedom is simply a power move, and lessens the will of the teacher to continue thriving in their classroom. A less motivated teacher equals a worse classroom experience. A worse classroom experience equals a lower-quality school.
Principals need to support, not oppress.
9. We in Jewish Education are a Tad Behind on the Technology
I spent a good portion of my time in Jewish Education working as a Director of Education Technology. It’s a subject I feel very passionate about. It also ended up being the gateway to my career switch.
I wormed my way into education technology because I was teaching most of my subjects exactly the same way. I wanted some variety, so I began creating comical and entertaining PowerPoints to accompany some of my subjects. And in no time at all, I was distinguished as the “tech guy”.
Now, this was great for me, personally and professionally. However, it does not say much for the schools at large, since PowerPoints are hardly cutting-edge technology, and I in no way felt like my tech skills were up to par, let alone exceptional. But apparently a small amount of initiative is all it takes to distinguish oneself, and that’s something that needs to change ASAP.
What is a “special”?
When I left the school I was teaching at in Kansas, I made a proposal that fell on deaf ears (most of my proposals there did… ). The school, like so many, had the basic primary subjects, such as math and science. In the younger grades, students also went to classes called “specials”, which they attended for a short period once or twice a week. These classes included such things as music, gym, art, and… computers. These specials ended after 7th grade, and were never heard from again.
I explained to the administration that having “computers” on this subject list is wildly outdated. It stems from times when kids were using Basic on clunky computers to make the number “3” repeat down the screen. Computers, or technology, is no longer a side subject. It has progressed to a level of importance at or exceeding that of the usual main school subjects. It’s time for a curriculum overhaul. To treat technology like a cutesy little art class, and to deprive students of necessary life skills once they surpass age 13, is inexcusable.
But for whatever reason, many Jewish schools out there are having a hard time accepting this change. The change in the world has happened whether you like it or not; either accept and adapt, or serve as a detriment to our children’s futures.
10. All Schools Call Themselves Families, Few Actually Are
The word “family” is tossed around a lot in Jewish days schools. It’s a beautiful concept, even when you think about it in all of its wacky details. Sometimes the family has Crazy Aunt Sally who gets drunk at the Passover Seder each year. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable and embarrassing. But nobody could picture the seder without her. It would be broken, and we’d feel sad.
Schools do things all the time that fly in the face of the concept of a “family”. Teachers get dumped on their asses without proper warning or without sufficient time to find a new job. Students are often not given the individual attention they need or deserve. I remember at my last school we got an email on Monday morning that the head of the school got married over the weekend. Some family!
Families are precious. The members cherish one another, and truly care about each others’ wellbeing. If a school community is like that, use the word. Use it freely and often. But if you’re not a family, don’t abuse the concept and please learn what it means.
It’s an ideal to strive for, not a gimmick to be tossed around by the clueless or the manipulative.
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