Changes, Challenges, Innovations, and Opportunities Facing Jewish Day Schools

Guest post by: Lisa Schopf,  Jewish Primary Day School of Our Nation's Capital and current YU Lead-er


What makes for good learning experiences in classrooms?


School leaders and teachers ask themselves that question all the time.

I have been exploring this question as an educator for a decade, a teacher mentor for several years, and most recently, through my participation in YU Lead, YUSP's national leadership development program for educators. The program, presented by the YU School Partnership, is designed to develop and advance current and emerging leaders in the field of Jewish education. Through YU Lead’s year-long program, I have been collaborating with other school leaders as we examine this essential question using a multitude of lenses. Together, we have been learning more about and embracing many of the innovative approaches that promote scholarship and effective practice. At the same time, the group's cumulative experiences have added clarity to our understanding of challenges facing Jewish day schools and school leaders around the country. There are no quick fixes.  In fact, many of the new ideas that have been proposed to address current issues present their own new challenges. But these challenges can also serve as opportunities for approaches that offer more progressive and enduring improvements.  

My experience with YU Lead has inspired and clarified my thinking on the following five important issues that schools face today:

1. Representations of learning can take many forms.

As school leaders, we are committed to furthering our children’s place in the rich tradition of their faith. YU Lead helps us explore and implement progressive approaches for optimizing student learning, fostering teacher growth, cultivating integrated and collaborative school cultures, and meeting the social, emotional, academic, and spiritual needs of all learners in our schools. We are also poised to inspire a mindset and an ethos that fosters these varying aspects of our students’ growth. Academic portfolios are one example of an approach that achieves just that. Portfolios enable students to engage in more authentic skill-building experiences and projects because it invites students to assume greater ownership of their learning by pursuing their interests and capitalizing on their strengths. It also serves to encourage our teachers to adopt a more collaborative approach with their students as they question, learn, research, set instructional objectives, and reflect on their learning together. As students take more control of the reins in their learning, they can express the breadth of their knowledge and the depth of their understanding through more representative means than standard tests.

2. Leaders are better when they come together.

As we address challenges, we can also seize the opportunities they bring. To meet these challenges, we should embrace collaboration, research, and reimagining the status quo. We can invite teachers, students, parents, and community members to come together to study new possibilities and clarify next steps can build the foundation for effective cultural change. We can partner with leaders from different schools and with members of different communities to help us generate new ideas and integrate innovative approaches.

I am grateful for my experience and development through YU Lead, and for the questions and possibilities that my colleagues in the program have raised. They note the current circumstances in Jewish day schools. Together, we have helped one another identify approaches that work best, think creatively about what could work better, and discover new possibilities for our schools. Among these are:

• Learn with a group of peers who inspire and challenge you.

• Read up on new ideas that you can put into action.

• Write to clarify your thinking and to share your ideas.

• Have a mentor as a sounding board, as well as a source of inspiration and guidance.

• Come together with other leaders to challenge conventional thinking and support growth

3. It is time to rethink supervision of teachers.

YU Lead sessions help us imagine ways to encourage the formation of professional learning communities (PLCs) in our schools. PLCs are a wonderful way to empower teachers to partner with colleagues to help support and advance their efforts to grow.

4. Where you learn is almost as important as what and how you learn.

School leaders are also reimagining the physical spaces of our schools.  We are considering how we can infuse more flexibility in our indoor and outdoor spaces to allow students to transform their contexts to meet the needs, interests, and the possibilities of their varied learning goals and circumstances.

5. Minding the gap between rhetoric and practice requires asking the right questions.

One of the greatest challenges we face as school leaders is closing the gap between stated goals and lived realities, between what we aspire to change and what we continue to do simply because that is how it has always been done.  In YU Lead, we have been addressing this challenge by identifying our values and priorities and then generating ideas for expressing and implementing them.  Doing so has led our group toward identifying and thinking deeply about a host of salient questions, such as…

As we embrace innovative thinking, shifting perspectives on what works best, and upending more traditional approaches to teaching, learning and, leadership within our schools, how do we inspire and encourage the adoption of more progressive visions and reconstituted missions?

How do we co-create with our fellow leaders, teachers, students, and parents the culture that we want to develop across our schools?

And as we focus ourselves on developing more child-centered learning opportunities in our schools, how can we extend aspects of that approach to meeting our children’s spiritual needs?

How can we make our children’s Tefillah more meaningful, their connection to Israel deeper, and their part in an evolving narrative of Jewish faith and community more secure?  

How can we provide student support in ways that sees each child’s unique identities, challenges, and gifts?

It’s an exciting time to be shaping the future of education and our Jewish future within our schools. YU lead emphasizes that we can do this best by joining together, by seeking out ideas from our colleagues at other schools, by sharing our own effective innovations, and by supporting all of our efforts in the pursuit of the possible and the reach for excellence.