I had an interesting call yesterday from the current Education Chair for my synagogue's Board of Directors. He wanted to get my feedback, both as a parent and as a former Education board member. Was I happy with the synagogue's education program? What did I think of eliminating Sunday mornings for the 7th graders? What should he task the Ed Committee with doing? How can he get more parents engaged in education?
It was interesting being on the other end of the phone-being asked my opinion rather than being the board member or committee chair. But I found with each criticism I offered, I immediately followed with a clarifying "I understand how hard it is to find good teachers" or "I understand how hard it is to get parents to show up for family education programs." And what I realized, quite loudly and clearly, is that things have not changed since my days on the Board. And I worry that they still will not have changed in years to come and quite honestly, they need to.
I was fortunate enough to attend the Union of Reform Judaism's education summit. I was there to cover the conference for the paper. During the summit, the brilliant Wendy Mogel suggested synagogue's hire youth director types (meaning young and "cool" and into Judaism) to be the religious school teachers. Then, the URJ announced a partnership with Hillel (which I'm assuming would create some sort of cool, college-age Hebrew teacher pipeline).
Truly smart thinking URJ. Makes me jealous that my Conservative Movement didn't think of it.
I think about the years my kids really, truly liked going to Hebrew school. Those were the years they either had amazing teachers or they had a lot of friends in the classrooms. Which leads me to two ideas...
1. Create a program that trains the Upper School (post-b'nai mitzvah) kids to teach. Offer an elective to train them and then either pay them or give them SSL (student service learning) hours to teach. This empowers and engages the older kids while inspiring the younger ones.
2. Give the children more opportunities to create friendships. It's hard when the kids only see each other a few hours a week and they come from different schools and may not have gone to pre-school together. My synagogue has the Upper School students come early on Wednesday nights to have dinner together before class starts. Great idea. Now, find a way to do something similar for the younger kids. Don't wait until Middle School to help them make friends. Build in time for talking and silliness. Stop cliques immediately. I'm not saying it's easy--kids can be cruel. But there are teachers who can do this and who can maybe mentor other teachers in how to do the same (I'm thinking of two specific ones at my shul who can create an unbelievable classroom environment that fosters friendships.)
So that's my idea for innovation. I don't think it's about bringing in computers or tablets (although, it would be fun to incorporate those cell phone apps for answering questions). It's about what Judaism is always about-quality education and strong community.