Professional Development and Workplace Environments are Interdependent

August 18, 2021

The Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators study opens an important conversation about what it means and what it takes to support the ongoing development of Jewish educators. This commentary focuses on two of four research briefs -- one on professional development and one on workplace environment. My goal is to underscore the interdependence of these topics and advocate for a broader definition of professional learning.

The first brief, “Professional Development of Jewish Educators,” draws a conclusion based more on developments in the field than on the study’s findings. According to the research, barely half the Jewish educators responding to the survey indicated that they have experienced intensive professional learning and when they do, they often have to pay for it themselves. Moreover, despite decades of critique, the dominant form of professional development in Jewish education is still a “one-off” workshop or lecture, which may introduce new knowledge and skills but does not help educators transform that content into effective teaching practices.

Despite these findings, the brief concludes that the problem regarding professional development in Jewish education is one of “access not availability.” The researchers base this conclusion on an increase in the number of intensive professional development programs and providers over the past 20 years. That is a development worth celebrating and more Jewish educators should be funded to participate in these professional learning opportunities.

Still, framing the problem as a matter of “increasing access to existing programs” reinforces a view of professional development as a discrete program or activity rather than an integral part of the ongoing work of educators. Decades of research in general education show that the most powerful and impactful professional development is woven into the daily activities of teachers. In such settings teachers share a sense of collective responsibility for student learning, time and space are organized so that teachers can work and learn together on a regular basis, teachers receive focused and timely feedback on their practice, and the overall school culture values teacher learning.[1] Jewish education has not yet embraced this paradigm.

I want to challenge the conclusion that, given the “plethora of (new) programs,” the field should focus on “increasing access to existing high quality experiences” rather than on “developing new programs or paradigms.” I believe that we need a new, research-based paradigm to help us understand what serious professional development involves and how organizational structures (e.g. time, space) and professional cultures (e.g. norms for dealing with questions and problems) support or limit educators’ motivation and opportunities to grow and learn.

This brings me to the second Brief, “Workplace Environments.” The separation of professional development from workplace environments blurs their interdependence and reinforces a view of professional development as something external to the ongoing work of educators. While Brief #2 connects workplace conditions such as relationships with colleagues and supervisors to educator satisfaction, efficacy and retention, it does not explicitly relate them to professional learning.

Deborah Meier, school leader and educational reformer, signals this relationship in the following description: “….imagine schools in which teachers are in frequent contact with each other about their work, have easy and necessary access to each other’s classrooms, take it for granted that they should comment on each other’s work, and have the time to develop common standards for student work.”[2] While this portrait may not reflect the organization of ordinary schools and the life of ordinary teachers, it offers a vision of how opportunities for educators to learn with and from one another can be woven into their daily activities.

Decades of scholarship on workplace conditions that promote professional learning distinguish collaborative from collegial working environments in which norms of politeness and the desire for harmony inhibit serious professional exchange. According to Brief #2, survey respondents report high levels of collegiality in their work setting but a pervasive discomfort at voicing disagreements. Regarding supervision, 8 in 10 respondents say their supervisors “care about their well being,” but barely half agree that “my supervisor knows my needs for professional development” or that “my supervisor provides useful feedback on how well I am performing” or that “my supervisor is an instructional mentor.”

These findings raise questions about the extent to which Jewish educational settings support serious, ongoing conversations about problems of practice and enable Jewish educators across experience levels to work with supervisors and peers on strengthening their teaching and their students’ learning.

The quality of Jewish education turns on the quality of Jewish educators. If we want powerful learning experiences for Jewish children and youth, we need to insure powerful professional learning opportunities for Jewish educators at every career stage. The Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators Study can inform an important conversation about this agenda.

Sharon Feiman-Nemser is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Professor Emerita of Jewish Education, Brandeis University

[1] Little J.W. (1999). Organizing schools for teacher learning. L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as the Learning Profession: Handbook of Teaching and Policy, San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 233-262.

[2] Meier, D. 1992. Reinventing teaching. Teachers College Record, 93)4), 594-609.