About 300 teachers from three Jewish day schools in the Greater MetroWest area came together on Friday, Dec. 6, for their largest-ever gathering, to share expertise and forge connections for mutual support.
The Quest for Teaching Excellence Conference, held at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy/Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School in Livingston, was organized under the auspices of the Greater MetroWest NJ Day School Initiative.
Shaped around the theme of “Teachers Teaching Teachers,” it brought together staff members from Kushner, Golda Och Academy in West Orange, and the Nathan Bohrer-Abraham Kaufman Hebrew Academy of Morris County in Randolph, as well as a small contingent from the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth.
The conference was part of a four-year, $1 million “Quest for Teaching Excellence” undertaking funded by the Paula and Jerry Gottesman Family Supporting Foundation of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, and the GMW Day School Community Fund of the JCF.
The fund, in turn, was established as part of the more than $50 million GMW Day School Campaign aimed at supporting affordability and excellence in the day schools. The undertaking is based at the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life — the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ’s identity-building and education arm — in Whippany.
Friday’s large turnout pleased organizers, who said last year’s first conference was greatly scaled down due to Superstorm Sandy. Other than JEC, the schools were closed to accommodate the conference. “We sent out a message to the parents to explain just why it was worth losing a day of lessons for this,” explained Rebecca Hindin, marketing coordinator for the initiative and one of the main organizers.
According to Kim Hirsh, JCF director of philanthropic initiatives, leaders of the Day School Campaign agreed in 2010 that the key to improving the schools was to strengthen their teaching, and that meant making an investment in the professional development of teachers.
Speaking during a break, Paula Gottesman said, “We wanted to find a way to make the [Jewish] schools the choice for people who can choose to send their children wherever they want, to places like Newark Academy or Pingry, to make them able to compete and possibly surpass those schools. We want people to choose them not just because they are Jewish schools but because of their academic excellence.”
The leaders of the Jewish day schools hired Elizabeth Penney Riegelman, the former head of school of Newark Academy, to work with them in designing the Quest for Teaching Excellence program, which includes adding faculty deans to each school and grants to support professional development of every teacher.
During the conference, Riegelman spoke about the work she has done with staff at the Jewish schools to help steer the process going forward.
Talking about the changes that have already occurred, Riegelman pointed out that the heads of the schools involved didn’t know each other before the process, but now work in close collaboration.
Keynote speaker HelenRose Fives explored the nature of learning and flexibility among teachers and students alike. She shared a concept popularized by a pedagogy professor that helps educators and students become more comfortable with experimentation, failure, and change.
In the three sessions that followed her talk, participants could choose from dozens of topics. Discussions covered such areas as technology, religious and emotional issues, individualized instruction, parent-teacher communication, and subject-specific tips and tactics.
Marci Rogozen, a Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher from GOA, led a discussion on technology. Getting to know her counterparts had been the highlight of the day, she said.
Rosemary Steinbaum, Kushner’s dean of faculty, commented on how smoothly “this rather complex conference” had gone.
“What a gift it is to us — to do the work we do,” she said.
GOA head of school Joyce Raynor said, “The culture around professional development has changed. It used to be a marginalized idea; now it is central to what we do. It has become a comprehensive, strategic part of what is happening in each of the schools.”
Moshe Vaknin, the head of HAMC, gave the closing speech.
“No one has all the good ideas; a lot of people have a lot of good ideas,” he said. “We are learning together and doing God’s work, in the best interests of our students.”