Understanding the Vital Role of Jewish Educators

June 15, 2020

teacher talks with elementary aged Jewish student, both seated at a desk in a classroom

In the last few months the world has faced a series of unfathomable challenges to our daily lives. The mandatory closure of schools across the country will have a profound effect on our nation, especially for parents who cannot work from home, those who rely on school for their nutrition and other basic needs, and families without the necessary technology for online learning or who cannot facilitate homeschooling. As we watch this unfold, no one knows what the long term, consequences of the decision to close schools will be.

Jewish day schools were not insulated from these closures. They were among the first schools in the nation to face mandated closures for Covid-19. As a parent, I watched as my children’s Jewish day school took on the question of not only how can we teach but how can we be in community even when distant. This crisis crystalized for me the care and commitment of Jewish day school leadership, faculty and staff. I am so grateful for how they have modeled resolve and compassion at this time.

Many months ago, CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) at George Washington University organized a meeting of researchers in Jewish education, researchers in general education and Jewish day school leaders to outline a series of research briefs based on a secondary analysis of CASJE’s Jewish Educational Leadership (JEL) in Day Schools study. Certainly we never imagined that we would be sharing these research briefs under the current circumstances. Still, the themes we selected—how day school leaders lead, how students see the climate of their schools, teacher attitudes about their work, how Jewish values shape day school communities, and the key findings that emerged in exploring all of these questions—resonate even in these strange and scary times.

In particular, I have reflected on the first brief in this series, which examines how day school leaders spend their time and what this teaches us about how they understand what it means to lead. Undoubtedly, time and leadership, each in their own way, have taken on new meaning in the last months.

As the brief explains, researchers who study school leadership have long thought about time. They use time-use research to understand the ways school leaders spend their time and the degree to which their time continues to be administration-bound, unpredictable, reactive, and fragmented. This literature in general education research makes clear that how school leaders spend their time matters— in terms of school culture and climate, teacher effectiveness, and student achievement.

Much of the time of Jewish educational leaders was recently consumed in reorienting to distance learning and in reckoning with the financial consequences of shut downs for institutions and families. Still navigating unfamiliar crisis can also crystallize the continued importance of the fundamental questions that undergird education research. These questions, about learning and leadership, endure even as they are refracted and distorted through the strange looking glass that is this emergency.

In the months since everything turned upside down, our day school leaders and teachers and staff (like so many across so many sectors of Jewish education) brought determination and focus not only to providing our children with education, but also in maintaining community. They used their time to make these times less scary and lonely for our children and for us too.

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us how precious time is, of the need to make the most of our time, and to distill what are truly valuable uses of our time. Hopefully we will soon be able to take these fundamental lessons into better days. Thank you to all the educators in day schools and across all sectors of Jewish education who are helping us navigate.

All of the JEL research briefs are at casje.org, covering the day-to-day experiences of Jewish day school leaders, teachers and students with implications for practice, policy and purpose.

Dr. Arielle Levites is Managing Director of CASJE at the George Washington University.