A new educational program for first-time Jewish teachers called the Bereshit Initiative is in its trial run this year in Seattle. The initiative seeks to support teachers who may be temporary to Jewish education but understand they will be making a significant impact on Jewish youth nonetheless.
The program is the brainchild of Carol Oseran Starin, assistant executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, Rivy Poupko Kletenik, director of education services for the Jewish Education Council, Joanne Glosser of Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation and Beth Weisberg, principal at Congregation Beth Am.
New religious-school teachers have the unique challenge of having to integrate with their communities while approaching material and children on both a spiritual and religious level. Starin, who is a former supervisor of student teachers in the College of Education at the University of Washington, sees great possibilities for Jewish education.
“This is really fun, I love teaching teachers,” said Starin, speaking from her downtown Seattle office. “This is a class for people who have not taught before because every year we have a lot of new teachers. We also have a high mobility rate because many teachers are students or graduate students. But they are committed to Jewish teaching, to their own learning and to raising up the next generation.”
Funded by grants from the Samis Foundation, Wendy and Michael Spektor and Paul and Nancy Etsekson, the program will run through its current first year, which ends in March, and then be evaluated.
“We bring a varied group of experiences to the table,” said Starin. “We don’t teach text but we look at the big idea and ask what’s the objective and what are the resources we need to reach those objectives?”
Although the original idea for the program was developed by the four original local educators as their group project while attending the Teacher Education Institute in Chicago, three other local educators are facilitating the program in Seattle.
Dr. Stephanie Bravmann, Rabbi Elisha Paul of the Northwest Yeshiva High School and Starin actually instruct the course.
“It sort of came together in three different ways,” said Starin. “In Chicago, we were part of a group of 40 other Jewish educators who were reading articles about what good Jewish teaching looks like. We were also looking at the relationship between content and context and how to help other teachers when they walk into a classroom. After we presented it we got several phone calls from other participants who wanted to know more about it. We also realized we could maximize our resources by using the religion school principals in the community. So teachers must already be hired by a school and referred to us by a principal. But we will also accept a teacher who is making a big change or is nearly new.”
The program that began in August 2000 and will run through March 2001 consists of a 30-hour course after which teachers are paid an honorarium. This year the curriculum will include workshops exploring student behavior in the classroom and the connection to relationships between parents and students. The Initiative will also take advantage of a workshop on gifted children being held at the upcoming mini-CAJE conference for teachers and use that as a requirement for their teachers.
According to Starin, the busiest month was August, when attendees were required to spend about nine hours in the program, but the subsequent months require only about three hours. The fledgling teachers explore what kind of environment they want to create in their classrooms and the individual strategies they might employ, given their different schools.
“Teaching is sometimes very isolating,” said Starin, “but this is a wonderful group and they are really bonding. We have 18 teachers representing eight schools. It’s like a conversation and it separates that role of supervisor. It has nothing to do with evaluation and supervision. We begin each session fielding their questions. Their classroom is their case study. Their work grows out of their classes and their relationship with their students. Their questions grow out of their experience.”
With only enough funding for this first year, Starin will take some time to debrief all those who participated in the program and take stock of the feedback.
“We will evaluate the program, get input about how it went and what the principals saw as a result of this,” said Starin.