We are both professionals at Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, both of our roles focus on working with educators in our Jewish community, and we are both parents of children who attend some type of Jewish educational programming — be it day school, early childhood, and/or a congregational school. For these reasons, we are uniquely qualified to extol the virtues of the Jewish educators in our Greater MetroWest Jewish community who are proving now, more than ever, how truly amazing they are.
And what better time to express our profound appreciation than National Teacher Appreciation Week, which began on May 4?
In mid-March, as many of us were stocking up on non-perishables and toilet paper, administrators and teachers in our local schools were preparing to pivot to a whole new way of teaching. For some, this switch to online learning was quite daunting. But since that initial pivot, the teachers in our community have gone above and beyond to engage students of all ages — and their families — in thoughtful learning and meaningful connections.
The educators – whether they teach in a congregational religious school, an early childhood center, or a day school – attended online trainings, practiced internally, and read articles about best practices in virtual education. Teachers in afternoon and weekend religious schools have found tremendous success engaging students with a variety of virtual tools including Kahoot, a platform for interactive content-driven games, and using creative techniques on Zoom, such as polling and sharing videos to capture students’ attention. Hebrew and b’nai mitzvah tutors continue to make time to meet virtually with each student to ensure they continue to progress and thrive in their studies.
Day school teachers are working overtime in order to provide students with engaging Zoom lessons, while also addressing diverse learning needs and attending to the social and emotional needs of students. One teacher told us she offers evening office hours where students can “drop in” via Zoom to ask questions and get extra support. She recognizes that for many students, learning via video conferencing can be very challenging, so she has been experimenting with different strategies and resources to further differentiate her instruction.
The challenges for early childhood teachers are different — they need to find creative ways to bring the magic of their intimate, play-based classrooms into the homes of young students. Many are using the Marco Polo app to share videos and engage the entire class at their convenience, while others are FaceTiming for a personalized check-in with each student and parent. They’re emailing weekly lists of materials that families should collect to explore, create, build, cook, and do a variety of activities that classes will work on together on Zoom.
Emily Fox: I am so appreciative of my daughter’s teacher, who has been checking in on us regularly. My almost-3-year-old is not so interested in participating in group Zoom calls, but does enjoy doing many of the activities her teacher suggests in her emails to parents. Through our class Marco Polo group, I’m able to share photos and videos of her engaging in the suggested activities, and her teacher will respond with a personalized video asking questions and making observations about her experience.
One team of early childhood teachers told us how they have followed their students’ interests virtually and discovered that their class is into sounds. This has led to “listening walks” and virtual jam sessions. One of the teachers even taught herself to play the ukulele to keep up with her sound enthusiasts! Another class we heard of is very interested in recycling. During a Zoom class the teachers shared a short video to reinforce the importance of recycling and then engaged the children in a recycling game. The meeting ended with a challenge: Bring three recyclables to the next Zoom.
Teachers at congregational religious schools also have been working hard to preserve the sense of community, despite the distance. Overwhelmingly, we’ve heard that teachers for students of all ages are ensuring individualized attention, outside of what’s become traditional “Zoom” time. At one synagogue, two amazing kindergarten teachers have done one-on-one hangouts with students who are not comfortable on the video conferencing app. Last week one of them sent a “mystery recipe” to one student, and then they baked together for 45 minutes — according to the teacher, both the student and the teacher had a blast.
Although most religious schools’ calendars are set to end in the next week or two, some dedicated teachers plan to keep going. Two teachers at one synagogue will be volunteering once the year officially is finished to teach free classes and provide individual tutoring to ensure that no child is behind due to the challenges of the past few weeks. They also want to stay connected to the students and know that the children want to see one another.
While teachers in our day schools are used to collaborating on a regular basis, they’ve made it an even higher priority in order to best support the needs of all students, including their social ones. And the fact that day school teachers have less students in their classroom ensures that they know their students well and know how they learn best, especially under these unusual circumstances.
Rebecca Hindin: I have been moved by the way that my three daughters’ teachers have virtually invited students into their homes (my children range from toddler to middle-school aged). One middle-school teacher at our day school made challah with the children in her kitchen, and another made cholent for Shabbat. Seeing one another’s living rooms, kitchen tables, families, and pets is giving teachers and students a way to connect more personally. One beloved first-grade teacher worked while sick with Covid-19. This week she listened to my daughter practice reading Hebrew and then took time to virtually tour my daughter’s new dollhouse.
The truth is, we could go on for pages and pages with examples of how our local teachers have been truly heroic in providing constant, rich, and meaningful content and connections for our students and their families. On behalf of all our colleagues at federation, and all the parents of students in our Greater MetroWest community, we express our gratitude for their tireless dedication: Todah raba, thank you very much.
Emily Fox is the director of Jewish Educational Initiatives and Rebecca Hindin is the director of the Greater MetroWest Day School Initiative, both at Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.